Human Rights Watch on Monday accused Palestinian militants in Gaza of war crimes for intentionally targeting Israeli civilians with rockets during last month’s clashes after Israel assassinated a top Hamas leader on Nov. 14.
“Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, in the report based on field interviews with witnesses on both sides. “There is simply no legal justification for launching rockets at populated areas.”
The condemnation of Hamas will likely be met with criticism that Israel is equally guilty of targeting civilians when it responds to what many in the Arab world consider a legitimate military struggle by Gaza’s armed formations: Hamas' Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad's Saraya al-Quds Brigades, and the Popular Resistance Committee's Nasser Salahaddin Brigades.
HRW said about 800 of the estimated 1,500 rockets launched from Gaza between Nov. 14 and 21 hit Israel, including 60 that dove into populated areas, killing two Israeli soldiers and civilians Mirah Scharf, 25, Aharon Smadja, 49, and Itzik Amsalem, 24 and Alayaan Salem al-Nabari, 33. The rest of the rockets fell short, landing inside Gaza and killing at least two unidentified Palestinian civilians. At least 103 civilians in Gaza were also killed during the weeklong conflict that stared after Israel killed Ahmed al-Jabari, the second-in-command of Hamas's military operations.
In addition to the civilian deaths caused by Hamas rockets, 38 Israelis were wounded, many seriously, and an unknown number of Palestinians were wounded by their own sides' rockets that landed inside Gaza. The rockets also shattered homes. Human Rights Watch also lambasted Gaza-based militants for launching their rockets from tunnels that open in densely populated civilian areas, making them targets for Israel.
HRW has called out Hamas in recent months for a range of human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including arbitrary arrests, torture and unfair trials. In April the group, which opposes the death penalty, called for a moratorium on executions in Gaza because confessions are routinely coerced through “widespread use” of torture.
The blunt criticism of Hamas’s military strategy is likely to raise hackles among Palestinian rights advocates who say Israel’s strategy for isolating Hamas amounts to an attack on Gaza’s 1.7 million people who have suffered under a years-long blockade, which Human Rights Watch has also condemned.
However, what pro-Palestinian activists and Hamas supporters won’t be able to do is accuse Human Rights Watch of a pro-Israel bias.
The organization has long been a critic of Israel’s aggressive and unlawful settlement policies that make Arab-Israel reconciliation virtually impossible, its discrimination against Palestinian Israeli citizens, its use of white phosphorus against civilians in Gaza in 2009 and its treatment of asylum seekers that enter the country illegally.
The full report can be read here.