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The Palestinian Authority should stop giving a wink and a nod to rocket attacks against civilians and take immediate steps to halt them, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Wednesday, a homemade rocket fired from Gaza killed Faina Slutzker, a 57-year-old Israeli woman, in the Israeli town of Sderot. The attack also seriously wounded a 24-year-old Israeli, Maor Peretz, who according to media reports lost both of his legs. Hours later, another rocket landed near the police station in Sderot, seriously wounding a 17-year-old boy. Four other rockets landed in Ashkelon, an Israeli town 8 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip.

The military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Slutzker. In a statement, the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said the attack was in retaliation for the killings in Beit Hanoun last week.

“The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority needs to take immediate steps to end attacks on civilians by Hamas’s own militant wing and other armed groups,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If the Palestinian Authority aspires to recognition as a lawful government, it must stop these blatant violations of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.”

Any party to an armed conflict is obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or 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, 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, homemade 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 6 kilograms of explosives and has a range of 3-10 kilometers. Because Qassams are not capable of accurate targeting, it is unlawful to use them in or near areas populated with civilians.

Hamas has claimed that its rocket attacks are a response to Israeli attacks that have killed civilians, including the recent attack on Beit Hanoun. Human Rights Watch said that unlawful attacks said to be committed in response to another unlawful attack are a form of reprisal, which is a violation of international humanitarian law. Reprisals also inevitably lead to a downward spiral of tit-for-tat attacks with dangerous consequences for civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

“The fact that Hamas characterizes its attacks as reprisals does not exempt it from the ban on targeting civilians,” said Whitson. “There is never any justification for targeting civilians.”

Since September 2005, Palestinian armed groups have fired around 1,700 homemade rockets into Israel, injuring 38 civilians. These attacks have killed nine civilians, including four children, since June 2004, and have caused many civilian injuries and damage to some civilian infrastructure, such as homes. Not a single one of these attacks has hit a military target.

“Palestinian authorities have not made serious efforts to end these homemade rocket attacks,” said Whitson. “Faina Slutzker’s death proves the lethal danger that these attacks pose to civilians.”

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. Most recently, the Israeli military launched a six-day operation into Beit Hanoun that killed at least 52 Palestinians and destroyed at least 30 houses, damaging dozens more. The day after withdrawing their troops, the Israel Defense Forces fired artillery shells at the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, killing 19 Palestinian civilians and wounding dozens more. Most of the dead came from the Athamna family, the majority of them women and children.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Israeli government to conduct a comprehensive independent investigation to determine if the attack on Beit Hanoun was a violation of international law and to establish who should be held accountable for the lethal fire. Human Rights Watch has also said that the investigation should examine the policy that has led Israel to fire some 15,000 artillery shells into Gaza since September 2005, killing 49 Palestinian civilians and seriously injuring dozens more, as well as causing severe damage to homes, businesses and agricultural land.

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