A U.S.-based human rights group on Thursday rejected a Hamas claim that it did not target civilians during last year's war against Israel, putting new pressure on the Islamic militant group days ahead of a U.N. deadline to respond to war crimes allegations.
The new claims against Hamas could carry extra weight because they came from Human Rights Watch, a group Israel has accused of unfair bias against the Jewish state.
The criticism from the New York-based human rights organization drew fresh attention to Hamas actions in the three-week war, during which about 1,400 Palestinians — most of them civilians — and 13 Israelis were killed. Most international criticism, including by Human Rights Watch, has been directed toward Israel.
Both Israel and Hamas face a Feb. 5 deadline to respond to allegations in a U.N. report that they committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the fighting.
The report, put together by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of using disproportionate force and deliberately targeting civilians. It also accused Hamas of firing rockets indiscriminately toward communities in southern Israel.
Call for independent investigations
The U.N. investigation called on each side to conduct independent investigations into the allegations. Neither has delivered a formal response, and both have signaled they will not comply.
An Israeli official said Thursday that Israel will deliver a letter to the U.N. on Friday, explaining the scope of Israel's internal investigations and declaring that Israel complied with international law during the Gaza conflict. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the letter has not been delivered.
Hamas said in an internal document obtained by The Associated Press that its rocket and mortar fire were directed solely at military targets and that any civilian casualties were accidental.
Palestinian militants fired some 800 rockets and mortar shells into Israel during the conflict, killing three civilians and wounding about 80. A frequent target was Sderot, next to the Gaza border, where there are no military bases. The rocket fire forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to seek cover in bomb shelters.
Human Rights Watch said its new criticism of Hamas is a response to the militant group's internal report.
"Most of the rocket attacks on Israel hit civilian areas, which suggests that civilians were the target" and Hamas' claim of aiming for military targets "is belied by the facts," said Bill van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
‘A war crime’
He added that statements from Hamas leaders during the fighting made clear that they intended to harm Israeli civilians.
"Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime," van Esveld said.
He said Hamas also committed war crimes by launching rockets from populated areas, which endangered the local population in Gaza by raising the likelihood of Israeli retaliation.
"Fighters intentionally fired rockets from near civilians in order to shield themselves from counterattacks," he said.
Hamas officials were not immediately available for comment.
Human Rights Watch has leveled serious accusations at Israel over its conduct during the Gaza war.
It has released three lengthy reports about Israel's wartime practices, including accusations that the Israeli army misused white phosphorous, an illuminating agent that can cause severe burns to people. It has also charged that Israeli troops unlawfully shot civilians as they waved white flags. Israel denies the allegations.
Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups have accused Human Rights Watch of focusing excessive attention on Israel.
The complaints gained steam after pro-Israel groups questioned Human Rights Watch's fundraising in Saudi Arabia, and discovered the group's senior military analyst was an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. The analyst was subsequently suspended.
The complaints also prompted Human Rights Watch's founder, Robert L. Bernstein, to accuse the organization of anti-Israel bias. In an Oct. 20 op-ed piece in the New York Times, he said the group condemned Israel for violating international law more than any other country in the region.
He also argued that Israel was paying a price because it is far more open than its Arab neighbors, making it easier for rights groups to work.
Van Esveld rejected any allegations of bias. He noted that the group has also issued two reports criticizing Hamas' conduct during the Gaza conflict.
"We focused a lot on the Gaza war, but that's because it was a war in which there was a lot of controversy," he said. "This is the kind of incident that we want to report on. But it's the incident rather than the fact that Israel was involved that made us do that."
Israel did not cooperate with the U.N. commission and rejected its findings as biased and unfounded. It says the military operation was launched in self-defense, and that it did everything it could to limit civilian casualties.
By rejecting calls for an independent inquiry, both Hamas and Israel could open themselves up to international war crimes proceedings.