Qassam rocket attacks by Palestinian militants into Israel and Israeli artillery strikes landing near populated areas in Gaza are serious violations of the laws of war, according to a report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The claim follows an investigation into Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli artillery strikes into Gaza between September 2005 and May 2007, when four Israeli civilians and at least 59 Palestinians were killed. The report also highlights an increase in civilian deaths as a result of Israeli artillery shelling after April 2006, the date the military increased the number of rounds it was firing and reportedly changed its policy by reducing the "safety zone" between permitted artillery targets and populated areas from 300 million to 100 million.
The Israeli High Court is due to hear complaints from human rights groups today about the alleged change of policy which followed the assumption of office by Hamas in the Palestinian Authority in March after its election victory.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) imposed a moratorium on artillery strikes after shells killed 19 Palestinian civilians, including 18 members of the same family in Beit Hanoun, on a single day in November 2006. Another four subsequently died of their injuries. It has since relied on targeted missile strikes on rocket launchers and rocket-launching sites in response to Qassam rocket attacks.
The HRW report is unsparing in its analysis of attacks from both sides. While Israeli civilian deaths in the relevant period are a small fraction of those of Palestinian civilians, it says that with little damage to Israeli military assets, the "primary purpose" of the 2,700 Qassam launches in the period "seems to be kill civilians, or at least to spread terror among the Israeli civilian population."
Both, says the report, are prohibited by international humanitarian law that applies whether or not the attacks are, as claimed by Palestinian militants, reprisals for Israeli attacks that kill or wound civilians. And HRW says that the Qassam attacks at times endanger Palestinian civilians, because the rockets are launched up to within 100 meters of populated apartment buildings, and this could draw return fire.
The report accepts that most the 14,617 artillery shells fired by Israel into Gaza landed in open ground, but adds that the IDF did not routinely reassess its use of artillery in the case of civilian deaths to meet its obligation to minimize them before the November carnage. This showed "indifference to the fate of Palestinian civilians", HRW says.
The IDF claimed yesterday the report "blurs the distinction between deliberately inflicted civilian casualties - a war crime - and those caused "unintentionally as a result of legitimate military action." Meanwhile, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected what he called "the report's equivalence of Israel as an occupier and Palestinians as people under occupation".
Joe Stork, at HRW's Middle East unit, said: "Tit-for-tat abuses can't be justified by arguing that the other side violated the law first."
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