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(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip should promptly implement the recommendations of the Goldstone report on Gaza by conducting credible investigations into serious laws-of-war violations by Palestinian forces, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent October 20, 2009, to Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, led by Justice Richard Goldstone, called on Hamas and Israel to investigate within six months alleged violations of the laws of war by their respective forces. The report said that Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli population centers should be investigated as war crimes. The UN Human Rights Council voted on October 16 to endorse the recommendations of the Gaza report.

"Hamas, just like Israel, needs to make clear to its forces that unlawful attacks on civilians will not be ignored," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Acting on Goldstone's call for investigations would be a crucial step toward justice for all the civilian victims of the war."

Hamas authorities said on October 15 that they will investigate the allegations against them.  "Although we do not agree with certain aspects of his report, we intend to act on his recommendation and to carry out our own investigation into any alleged crimes committed by members of the resistance movements in Gaza," the Hamas-run Foreign Ministry said about the Goldstone report.

In the past, Hamas has failed to investigate its fighters and commanders who violated the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

The Goldstone report found "no evidence of any system of public monitoring or accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law set up by the Gaza authorities."

Hamas cooperated with the Goldstone mission, and authorities in Gaza say they are preparing responses to its findings.

Hamas vigorously criticized the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for withdrawing, under heavy pressure by the United States, a UN Human Rights Council resolution that endorsed the findings and recommendations of the Goldstone report. The Palestinian Authority subsequently requested a special session of the Human Rights Council, which endorsed the report's recommendations.

Prior to the vote, a Hamas Foreign Ministry adviser, Ahmad Yusuf, had said that Hamas "will try to do our best" to investigate rocket attacks against Israeli population centers.  Yusuf also claimed that Hamas had only intended its rocket attacks to hit Israeli "military targets," rather than Israeli civilians, and that "maybe some of these rockets missed their targets" because they were "primitive weapons."

In its letter to Haniya, Human Rights Watch recalled repeated statements by Hamas officials and fighters indicating an intent to direct the rockets toward civilian targets and asked Hamas to clarify its stance on the issue. A June 11, 2006 statement from the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas armed wing,  for example, said that in response to an Israeli attack that targeted Palestinian fighters, the group had carried out a rocket attack against the Israeli town of Sderot and would continue attacking Sderot "until its residents flee in horror. We will turn Sderot into a ghost town."

In the past, leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have sought to justify attacks against Israeli civilians as legitimate reprisals for Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians. In other cases, Hamas leaders seemed to acknowledge that rocket attacks targeted Israeli civilians but claimed the attacks were justified as part of their resistance tactics against Israeli occupation. 

Human Rights Watch noted in the letter to Haniya that Israeli forces harmed many civilians in Gaza during apparently unlawful attacks, but that the laws of war prohibit reprisals against civilians, and serious violations by one party to a conflict do not justify violations by another. While Israel's armed forces were vastly superior to those in Gaza and caused far greater harm to civilians in Gaza than Palestinian armed groups caused to Israelis, Palestinian armed groups remain responsible for firing rockets indiscriminately or deliberately at Israeli civilian objects, the letter said.

"In the past Hamas tried to justify the unjustifiable by defending unlawful rocket attacks," Whitson said. "Having now promised to follow the Goldstone report's recommendations, Hamas has no excuse for not carrying out serious war crimes investigations."

Israel refused to cooperate with the UN Fact Finding Mission and has rejected the findings and recommendations in the report, although it says it is conducting investigations into some allegations. To date, Israel's record of conducting investigations into the conduct of its military forces has been poor.

Palestinian armed groups have launched thousands of rockets since 2001, killing 15 civilians inside Israel. During the 22-day Gaza conflict in December, 2008 and January, 2009, rocket attacks killed three Israeli civilians and placed up to 800,000 people within range of attack. On their website, the Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed the three Israeli civilians.

Armed groups, including the Qassam Brigades, also put Palestinian civilians at risk of Israeli counter-attacks by launching rockets from populated areas.

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