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Hamas must cease immediately “Qassam” rocket and mortar attacks against civilian areas, Human Rights Watch said today.

Hamas mortar shells and Qassam rockets killed three civilian workers (two Palestinian and one Chinese) and injured an Israeli woman and her two children in an attack that struck a packing plant in the Israeli settlement of Ganei Tal in Gaza and the Israeli town of Sderot yesterday. Both Israeli and Palestinian analysts suspect that Hamas’s continued use of mortar and Qassam attacks against civilians is an expression of the group’s displeasure at the cancellation of local election results in localities that favored Hamas and the recent postponement of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

“Hamas has repeatedly failed to respect a fundamental rule of international humanitarian law by attacking civilians and civilian objects,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “It is unacceptable for Hamas to express its unhappiness with the political situation by firing on civilians.”

Any party to any armed conflict is obligated to abide by international humanitarian law (the laws of war). International humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks and attacks that cause disproportionate damage to civilians. A prohibited indiscriminate attack includes using weapons that are incapable of discriminating between civilians and combatants or between civilian and military objects.

Human Rights Watch said that Qassam rockets, named after the armed wing of Hamas, Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, are by their very nature problematic weapons because it is not possible to direct them at military targets with any degree of precision. They are primitive, short-range, home-made rockets that do not have the technical capability to be guided. Typically, a Qassam is made up of a 1-meter-long tube filled with six kilograms of explosives and has a range of between three to ten kilometers. The longest shot to date was an 8-kilometer attack on Ashkelon, an Israeli town 8 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip. Because Qassams are not capable of accurate targeting, it is unlawful to use them in or near areas populated with civilians.

“If Hamas wants to be considered a legitimate political actor in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it must show respect for the most basic principles of humanitarian law,” said Whitson. “To date, it has failed to do so.”

According to the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas has launched more than 300 Qassam rockets since September 2000. All of the victims of the rockets have been civilians. Including this most recent attack, there have been eight civilian deaths from Qassam rockets, four of them children, as well as many civilian injuries and damage to civilian infrastructure, such as homes. Not a single one of these attacks has hit a military target.

In the past, Israel has retaliated against Qassam attacks with large-scale military operations that have resulted in the deaths of civilians, leveled land and demolished homes and other buildings. The most destructive Israeli response to a Qassam attack, a 17-day-long operation in October 2004, named by the Israeli army as “Days of Penitence,” targeted the Jabalya refugee camp, from where it was believed Hamas launched Qassams resulting in the death of two Israeli children in the town of Sderot in September 2004. The operation led to the death of approximately 107 Palestinians, a quarter under the age of 18, and the injury of 431, as well as the demolition of at least 91 homes. When questioned by Human Rights Watch about the destruction in October 2004, Israeli General Israel Ziv could not articulate a military purpose for the attack, but said the attack was necessary to punish Jabalya residents for their support of the armed groups.

Human Rights Watch said that unlawful attacks committed in response to another unlawful attack are a form of reprisal, which is a violation of international humanitarian law, and Israel should refrain from repeating them.

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