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Hamas should announce publicly and without delay that it will not carry out attacks that target civilians or cause them indiscriminate harm, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the leaders of the group.

Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement, Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya), won the Palestinian parliamentary elections on January 25. The group’s military wing has carried out suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed scores of civilians and gravely wounded many others. The organization declared and has maintained a moratorium on such attacks for more than a year, but has never made a commitment to end them.

Over the past year Hamas has also been responsible for firing home-made Qassam rockets at Israeli towns, in violation of the international humanitarian law prohibition against firing weapons that cannot be directed at specific military targets in or near civilian areas.

“Hamas's new role in Palestinian politics makes it essential as well as opportune for it to make a commitment that it will not attack civilians under any circumstance," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever happens in its relations with Israel, it must make clear that it will no longer undertake attacks against civilians."

Hamas spokespersons have claimed that such attacks are in response to Israeli attacks that kill Palestinian civilians. But the absolute prohibition against targeting civilians extends to acts of reprisal for attacks against one's own civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

“Attacks that intentionally kill and maim civilians flagrantly violate the most basic humanitarian principles," Stork said. "These are among the very worst kinds of crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity – and all states have an obligation to bring the perpetrators to justice."

Under international law, persons who order or condone war crimes or crimes against humanity, as well as the direct perpetrators of such acts, can be held criminally responsible.

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