Israeli police explosive experts stand near the remains of a rocket fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza after it landed in Netiv Haasara, just outside the northern Gaza Strip, on March 18, 2010.

© רויטרס 2010

(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should bring to justice those responsible for a rocket attack that killed a civilian in Israel on March 18, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today. Ansar al-Sunna, a previously unknown Palestinian armed group in Gaza, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The rocket, launched from Gaza, killed Manee Singmueangphon, a 33-year-old Thai migrant worker who was working in a commercial greenhouse in the Israeli community of Netiv Ha'asara, 400 meters north of the Gaza Strip.  The victim was the first civilian killed by a rocket in Israel since December 29, 2008. 

"Hamas as the de facto authority in Gaza has the responsibility to stop indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The failure to bring justice for laws of war violations by both sides is fueling the suffering of civilians in Israel and Gaza."

 The Embassy of Thailand in Tel Aviv told Human Rights Watch that Manee Singmueangphon came to work in the agricultural sector in Israel in 2006, and had a wife and children in Thailand.

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson's office told Human Rights Watch that the rocket struck the greenhouse at 10:30 a.m.  An Israel Police spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that he could not identify the type of rocket for security reasons, but said it was "not something new." Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) said that its medics went to the scene but could not revive the victim. 

Armed groups in Gaza have fired approximately 147 rockets into Israel since the end of major Israeli military operations in Gaza on January 18, 2009, most of them during the two months after the conflict.  The rockets are invariably indiscriminate when fired at populated areas because they lack any guidance mechanism and cannot be aimed accurately at military targets.

According to news reports, Ansar al-Sunna said the attack was a "response to the Zionist assaults against the Ibrahimi and al-Aqsa mosques and the continued Zionist aggression against our people in Jerusalem," referring to important Muslim holy sites in Hebron and Jerusalem. Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum stated yesterday that Israel "bears the responsibility" for the rocket attacks because it "has launched a war against the Palestinian people and against holy sites and the al-Aqsa mosque."

Hamas has sought to repress Islamist groups in Gaza that have challenged its rule.

The Israeli government recently announced that it would include West Bank sites holy to both Muslims and Jews, including the Ibrahimi Mosque and Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, in a "national heritage" plan to renovate the sites. Israeli authorities also recently opened a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem and temporarily barred Palestinian men under 50 years of age from going to the nearby al-Aqsa mosque as a security measure against possible protests.  

Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are serious violations of the laws of war. Such attacks committed willfully - that is, intentionally or recklessly - are war crimes that are subject to criminal prosecution. Ansar al-Sunna's attempt to justify its indiscriminate rocket attack as a reprisal for Israel's actions in the West Bank are contrary to the laws of war, which do not permit violations by one side to justify violations by the other. 

"Ansar al-Sunna's citation of Israeli actions is a diversion," said Stork.  "The laws of war never permit indiscriminate attacks regardless of the conduct of the other side."

The 2009 report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, found that Palestinian armed groups including Hamas were responsible for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity for rocket attacks against Israeli population centers.

Hamas announced it would create a committee to investigate the charges but gave no further information about the committee's members, mandate or findings. Hamas reportedly claimed in February, in announcing the results of an internal investigation, that that the group had aimed rockets at only Israeli military targets and that harm to civilians had been accidental. Human Rights Watch said that its own investigation of Hamas rocket attacks showed that Hamas's claim lacked credibility.

Attacks by Palestinian armed groups killed three Israeli civilians and those by Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the December 2008-January 2009 conflict.

In 2004, rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups killed two Thai migrant workers in Israeli settlements in Gaza.  A third Thai worker in Gaza was killed by gunfire that year. Israel withdrew its forces and settlements from Gaza in 2005.