Image: Smoke rises over Gaza
Hatem Moussa  /  AP
Smoke rises during an Israeli military operation in Gaza City on Jan. 13.
updated 7/2/2009 6:59:19 AM ET 2009-07-02T10:59:19

Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and destroyed thousands of Gaza Strip homes in attacks that amounted to war crimes, Amnesty International charged Thursday, in the first in-depth human rights group report on the recent war in Gaza.

Amnesty called on Israel to publicly pledge not to use artillery, white phosphorus and other imprecise weapons in densely populated areas. And it urged Gaza's militant Hamas rulers to stop rocket fire against Israeli civilians — attacks it also described as war crimes.

Amnesty — which first accused Israel of war crimes shortly after the fighting ended on Jan. 18 — said "disturbing questions" remain about why high-precision weapons like tank shells and air-delivered bombs and missiles "killed so many children and other civilians."

The group also deplored Israel's use of less-precise artillery shells and highly incendiary white phosphorous in densely populated areas. It also accused Israeli forces of using Palestinians as "human shields" and frequently blocking civilians from receiving medical care and humanitarian aid.

'Disregard for civilian lives'
The pattern of Israeli attacks and the high number of civilian casualties "showed elements of reckless conduct, disregard for civilian lives and property and a consistent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects," Amnesty International charged.

More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed during the three-week offensive, according to Gaza health officials and human rights groups. Israel puts the death toll closer to 1,100 and says the vast majority of the dead were militants, though it has refused requests to provide a list of the dead.

Amnesty says some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians were among the dead. Thirteen Israelis also were killed, including three civilians who died by rocket fire.

The Israeli military did not respond to requests for comment. But in the past, it has blamed Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing the Islamic group of using mosques, schools and residential areas for cover to stage attacks.

The Geneva Conventions ban using white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations and in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas.

During the Gaza conflict Israel categorically denied that its use of phosphorous weapons was illegal. The Israeli military says its internal investigations concluded it did not violate international law during the Gaza war.

The 117-page Amnesty International report was based on physical evidence and testimony that a team of four researchers, including a military expert, gathered from dozens of attack sites in Gaza and southern Israel during and after the war.

Little new ground
The detailed report broke little new ground, concentrating on issues, cases and problems that have been dealt with in other frameworks.

Among the Gaza cases cited in the report were the well-documented shelling of a house where a family took refuge on soldiers' orders before 21 people were killed; an Israeli artillery attack near a U.N. school that killed dozens; and the shelling of a house that killed three daughters of a Gaza doctor who has worked in Israel for years and is a champion of coexistence.

Israel did not respond to Amnesty International's repeated requests for information on specific cases detailed in the report and for meetings to discuss the organization's findings, said Donatella Rovera, who headed Amnesty's field research mission.

She said investigators were able to operate freely in Gaza, without any intervention by Hamas security forces.

"This was a fierce, one-sided war in which all means of killing and destruction were employed," said Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas' Gaza government. "We believe that the leaders of the occupation state must be tried for these crimes."

Both sides of conflict
The U.N. is examining the conduct of both sides to the conflict. Hamas allowed veteran war crimes investigator Richard Goldstone and his team into Gaza last month, but Hamas security often accompanied them, raising questions about the ability of witnesses to freely describe the militant group's actions.

Israel has refused to cooperate with the probe, claiming the U.N. council overseeing the investigation is biased.

Israel conducted its own internal investigation earlier this year and cleared the military of wrongdoing. Human rights groups criticized the probe as a whitewash.

The Amnesty report denounced Hamas for firing rockets into towns and villages in southern Israel.

"Five months on, neither side has shown any inclination to change its practices and abide by international humanitarian law, raising the prospect that civilians will again bear the brunt if fighting resumes," Rovera concluded.

More on: Israel | Gaza | Amnesty International

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