Israelis survey the damage caused by a rocket fired by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza which hit the southern city of Beer Sheba on February 23, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should take all possible steps to prevent Palestinian armed groups from launching rockets against Israeli population centers and hold accountable those who commit violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.

A rocket fired on February 23, 2011, by a Palestinian armed group struck the Israeli city of Beer Sheba, 40 kilometers from Gaza, damaging civilian property, Human Rights Watch said.

"Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli cities are unlawful and unjustifiable," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas needs to act to prevent these attacks and hold the people behind them to account."

A resident of Beer Sheba told Human Rights Watch that she ran to a bomb shelter on February 23 when air raid sirens sounded at approximately 9:40 p.m. Israeli media reported that the rocket - the first to strike the city since the Gaza conflict in 2008 and 2009 - damaged two homes and that several residents were treated for shock at Beer Sheba's Soroka hospital.

In addition, three mortar shells fired from Gaza on February 23 landed across the Israeli border, according to Israeli media reports. None fell near any military targets.

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.

Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have fired 17 rockets and 23 mortars into Israel since 2011 began, according to Israeli sources. An attack on January 8 injured three Thai agricultural workers, one seriously, on a kibbutz in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council. The Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said it had fired mortar shells toward the Nahal Oz military post east of Gaza City at 2 p.m. The injured men were treated at the Soroka hospital.

Rocket attacks have also fallen short of Israel and harmed Palestinians in Gaza. A rocket fired by Palestinian armed groups on January 22 killed one man and injured two others who were collecting rubble and scrap metal in Gaza near the Israeli perimeter fence, the United Nations reported.

According to Israeli sources, most of the rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups in 2011 were locally made and fell near the Gaza border, but some - including two that struck in Ofakim and Netivot on January 31 - have been longer-range, Soviet-designed "Grad" rockets. Other rockets have fallen short and landed inside Gaza, in some cases injuring Palestinians.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, including the last civilian fatality in Israel, in March 2010, when a rocket killed a Thai migrant worker. Hamas has failed to take any meaningful steps to hold anyone accountable for rocket attacks against Israeli population centers during the 2008-09 conflict, which Israel called "Operation Cast Lead," when it fired hundreds of rockets that killed three civilians.