Why Hamas is denying it targeted civilians in Israel

Ahead of a Feb. 5 deadline to respond to war crimes charges in the UN-sponsored Goldstone report, Hamas said it had meant to hit military targets last winter. Human Rights Watch disagrees.

By , Correspondent

Ahead of a looming deadline for Israel and Hamas to respond to war crimes charges in the UN-sponsored Goldstone report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit back today at a claim made by Hamas earlier this week that its fighters did not commit war crimes in its three-week war with Israel last winter. Instead, said Hamas, its fighters struck civilian areas in Israel “by mistake” when launching rockets at the country’s military installations.

“Hamas’s claim that rockets were intended to hit Israeli military targets and only accidentally harmed civilians is belied by the facts,” the HRW statement said. "Civilians were the target,” the statement continued, “and deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime.”

The Hamas claim was revealed in an internal document obtained by the Associated Press. Local media say it is part of a larger report Hamas plans to send to the United Nations (UN) later this week, ahead of a Feb. 5 deadline imposed by the UN on both Israel and Hamas to provide evidence they are carrying out independent investigations into allegations of war crimes.

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Failure to comply may result in the UN taking up war crimes proceedings against the two at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Hamas hasn't launched serious inquiry

But rights groups here say despite announcements that it plans to launch an investigation, Hamas has so far fallen short of a serious inquiry into the conduct of its own fighters

“I am not confident they are carrying out a serious investigation,” says Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights – one of the 11 Palestinian rights groups that called on Palestinian leaders to investigate war crimes last week. “But the problem is this: while they want international recognition, they also don’t understand international criteria for such procedures.”

“They think the international community will adopt their story, that they didn’t mean to target civilians, and that will be it,” Mr. Shammala continues. “But this is not a joke. If they continue like this, they should be very afraid, just as the Israelis should, of criminal prosecution."

The move may be just a public relations stunt meant to boost its international image, local analysts say. Others say the movement assumes the international community is more focused on Israel, also accused of war crimes and which rebuffed this week UN calls for an independent inquiry into its own army’s actions.

“This apparent revelation by Hamas that it hit civilian targets during the war is nothing new, but I think they are looking for legitimacy from the international community, to present themselves as cooperative and open to criticism,” says Gaza-based political analyst, Talal Okal.

“They know that Israeli actions during the war are seen as being far worse,” Mr. Okal continues. “So I don’t think they are taking the whole process very seriously in this respect.”

Goldstone report

Rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups from the Gaza Strip during the war killed 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers, and injured more than 800. More than 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, were killed by the Israeli offensive, according to Palestinian and international human rights groups.

In a 575-page report published by a fact-finding mission commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, the team accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes for targeting and failing to protect civilians. The report calls Palestinian rocket-fire “indiscriminate,” and therefore a violation of international law.

Hamas government spokesmen were unavailable for comment, but the Islamist movement has so far been very vocal in its support for the UN war crimes investigation, allowing the mission to conduct its work in Gaza last summer and even criticizing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for dropping his endorsement of the mission’s findings in October.

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