Palestinian armed groups in Gaza violated the laws of war during the November conflict by launching hundreds of rockets toward population centers in Israel, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Monday.
According to the IDF, some 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense. At least 800 struck Israel, including 60 that hit populated areas.
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"Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. "There is simply no legal justification for launching rockets at populated areas."
The rights group said that under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians and civilian structures may not be subject to deliberate attacks or attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets.
"Anyone who commits serious laws-of-war violations intentionally or recklessly is responsible for war crimes," it stated.
Rishon Lezion building hit by Gaza rocket (Photo: Dudu Azoulay)
HRW said it interviewed witnesses, victims, and relatives of people killed and injured by rocket attacks in Israel, as well as Israeli officials from two communities struck by rockets, and a spokesperson for the Israeli emergency medical services.
The organization said its research in Gaza found that armed groups "repeatedly fired rockets from densely populated areas, near homes, businesses, and a hotel, unnecessarily placing civilians in the vicinity at grave risk from Israeli counter-fire."
HRW said the Palestinian terror groups that are known to have launched rockets at Israel – Hamas' Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad's Saraya al-Quds Brigades, and the Popular Resistance Committee's Nasser Salahaddin Brigades – at times said that their attacks targeted civilians or they sought to justify the attacks by calling them reprisals for Israeli attacks that killed civilians in Gaza.
"The laws of war prohibit reprisal attacks against civilians, regardless of unlawful attacks by the other side," HRW said. "Statements by armed groups that they deliberately targeted an Israeli city or Israeli civilians are demonstrating their intent to commit war crimes."
The rights group urged Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, to uphold the laws of war and "appropriately punish those responsible for serious violations."
The rockets launched by Palestinian groups "cannot be aimed precisely enough to target military objectives in or near civilian areas," Human Rights Watch said.
"Under the laws of war, such weapons are therefore indiscriminate when used against targets in population centers. The absence of Israeli military forces in the areas where rockets hit, as well as statements by leaders of Palestinian armed groups that population centers were being targeted, indicate that the armed groups deliberately attacked Israeli civilians and civilian objects."