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Indiscriminate rocket attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas against civilian areas in Israel, including one that killed an Israeli man on February 27, are serious violations of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also said the high number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza indicates the need for independent investigations to determine whether Israel has taken all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, as required by the laws of war.

Hamas said it fired 55 locally made rockets from Gaza into Israel on Wednesday, February 27, one of which killed Roni Yichia, age 47, near Sapir College on the outskirts of the Israeli border city Sderot. Israeli authorities said that at least 30 rockets had landed in and around Sderot, resulting in shrapnel wounds to several people. One rocket hit a home and another a factory lunchroom. Another rocket reportedly landed near Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, a larger city farther from Israel’s border with Gaza.

“Attacking civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons violates the core humanitarian principle of civilian immunity,” said Joe Stork, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Hamas leaders have an obligation to stop such indiscriminate attacks immediately.”

Hamas said it fired the rockets in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike earlier in the day that killed five members of Hamas’s armed wing riding in a minivan. Other Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks in recent days have killed Palestinian civilians as well as persons whom Israel claims were engaged in armed activity.

Following the Hamas rocket barrage, an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza on Wednesday evening killed three Palestinian children. Hospital officials told Human Rights Watch the victims were Anas al-Mana’ma (age 10), Muhammad Khalil Hamada (age 12), and Bilal Hijazi (age 10). The Israeli military said the victims were preparing to launch a rocket attack. Palestinian media reported that they were playing near an abandoned portable rocket launcher in the al-Taw’am neighborhood between Beit Lahiya and Gaza City. The attack also wounded 17 persons playing in a sports field nearby, including six children. According to Palestinian media reports, Israeli attacks in Gaza in the 24 hours following Wednesday’s rocket barrage into Israel killed at least 23 persons, eight of them children.

On February 23, an Israeli ground-launched shell killed three young Palestinian men near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the men were not armed, and that they had seen no armed activity in the vicinity.

The Israeli man killed yesterday near Sderot was the first person killed by rocket attacks from Gaza since May 2007, and the fourteenth overall since the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian armed clashes in September 2000, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. In the same period, B’Tselem reported that 1,259 of the 2,679 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the Gaza Strip were not participating in hostilities when they were killed, and 567 were minors.

The use of rockets that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets, such as the locally made rockets fired by Hamas, violate the laws of war when fired toward populated areas. “Combatants must take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, regardless of actions taken by the other side,” Stork said. “Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are always prohibited; who did what first is irrelevant.”

As for civilian casualties from Israeli attacks, an investigation is required in many cases to determine whether Israel did everything feasible in its weapons and targeting choices to minimize civilian harm, as required by the laws of war. Recent attacks that killed civilians raise questions about whether Israel is taking all feasible precautions in its targeting decisions. In a report published in July 2007, Human Rights Watch showed that Israel had not monitored civilian casualties in Gaza and had not investigated harm to civilians associated with its attacks in or near civilian-populated areas. Human Rights Watch said that, given the continuing civilian casualties in Gaza, Israel should do more to examine its targeting behavior and to implement measures that better protect civilians.

On February 26, Israel’s military advocate general announced that he would not pursue an investigation to determine possible wrongdoing in a November 2006 artillery attack in Gaza that killed 21 Palestinian civilians, saying that the deaths had been the result of a “rare and severe” technical malfunction.

The Israeli military had at first said the November 2006 attack was aimed at a site from where Palestinians had fired rockets, but had accidentally hit civilian homes some 500 meters away. The military later said the decision to shoot was based on reliable intelligence that additional rockets would be fired from the site.

“Israel has an obligation during military operations to minimize civilian deaths, and to conduct impartial investigations into cases that may be the result of wrongdoing or negligence on the part of Israeli forces,” Stork said. “The continuing high civilian casualty rates in Gaza suggest that this obligation is not being met.”

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