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(New York) - Hamas's latest claim that its rocket attacks against Israel are not war crimes is factually and legally wrong, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 27, 2010, Hamas authorities in Gaza released the summary of an internal report that tried to clear itself and other Palestinian armed groups of laws-of-war violations during last year's hostilities with Israel. The report says that rocket attacks into Israel only targeted military objectives, and that civilian casualties were an unintended result.

"Hamas can spin the story and deny the evidence, but hundreds of rockets rained down on civilian areas in Israel where no military installations were located," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.  "Hamas leaders at the time indicated they were intending to harm civilians."

Since 2001, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have fired thousands of rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel. 

During the December 2008-January 2009 fighting, rockets launched from Gaza killed three Israeli civilians and wounded dozens.  Hamas's armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for all three fatal attacks.  Two Palestinian girls also died when a Palestinian rocket struck inside Gaza.

Hamas prepared its report in response to the findings of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone.  The Goldstone report said that rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups constituted war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity.

The Goldstone report also found that Israeli forces committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, and some attacks targeting civilians and civilian objects.  The report called on Israel and Hamas to carry out impartial investigations by the end of March.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to report to the General Assembly on February 5 on steps that Israel and Hamas have taken thus far to conduct impartial investigations.  Israel is also expected to release its response to the Goldstone report soon.

The report from Hamas was prepared by a committee headed by Gaza's justice minister, Faraj al-Ghoul.

A Hamas media statement accompanying the report summary says: "Despite the certainty that there were no international humanitarian law or human rights violations amounting to war crimes, the committee opened its doors wide to receive people's complaints, investigate them to the fullest extent, and prosecute the perpetrators in accordance with Palestinian law."

Human Rights Watch said that statements by Hamas leaders during last year's fighting contradict Hamas's claims that Palestinian armed group fired rockets only at military targets. A spokesman for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades who identified himself as Abu Obeida said in a video released on January 5, 2009, for example, that "continuing the incursion will only make us increase our rocket range [...]. We will double the number of Israelis under fire."  Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, in a speech broadcast the same day, said, "The Israeli enemy ... shelled everyone in Gaza. They shelled children and hospitals and mosques, and in doing so, they gave us legitimacy to strike them in the same way."

The balance of power and the politics of a conflict are never justifications for a warring party to target civilians, Human Rights Watch said.  Violations of the laws of war by one party do not justify violations by the other side.

The locally manufactured Qassam and longer-range Grad rockets launched by armed groups in Gaza also have no guidance system and are therefore inherently indiscriminate when fired at populated areas.  Firing them into densely populated areas of Israel is a violation of the laws of war.

"Hamas's self-investigation clearly failed the test," Stork said.  "An independent and impartial investigation is needed to look seriously at its conduct during the fighting."

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