<i>Laws of war violated in Gaza: HR groups</i>
Human rights groups are seeking to build a case that Israel and Hamas violated the laws of war during the fighting last month in this tiny coastal territory a charge both combatants reject.
On Tuesday, the International Criminal Court said the Palestinian Authority had recognised the court's jurisdiction in a move aimed at allowing a war crimes investigation.
Given the clarity of Hamas' violations, such as firing rockets at Israeli cities, organisations are focusing more on Israeli actions, the facts of which they say are harder to establish.
"The Israeli authorities deny everything, so one has to prove what happened in a way that you don't need to do with the Palestinian rockets," said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International.
Among the questions being raised are whether Israel used disproportionate force and failed to protect civilians.
In one case, Israeli artillery fire hit near a UN school where hundreds of Gazans had sought refuge, killing 42 people. In another instance, Gazans allege Israeli soldiers ordered 110 civilians into a warehouse, then shelled it the next day, killing 30. Israel denies the allegations.
"The suspected war crimes make for a very long list," said Jessica Montell, head of the Israeli group B'Tselem.
Rights activists say Gaza's Hamas rulers and other Palestinian groups committed war crimes by targeting Israeli civilians with rockets. They also say Hamas' use of human shields, as alleged by Israel, would constitute war crimes.
Groups which include B'Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch emphasise that investigations will take months and concede few venues exist for any trials. But they have to investigate potential violations on both sides.
Even if no trials result, investigations encourage accountability, the groups say.
The International Criminal Court can only investigate if asked by the UN Security Council or an involved state that has recognized the court. Israel has never recognized its jurisdiction, and because only states can recognize the court, it is unclear if the Palestinians can do so.
Israel is preparing for potential legal action, barring the media from publishing pictures of officers' faces and their names for fear of investigations. Israel has blamed the high civilian death toll on Hamas militiamen fighting from civilian areas.
Israel launched its offensive Dec 27, killing 1,285 Palestinians, nearly 900 of them civilians, during the 23-day war, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
The laws of war as established by the Hague and Geneva conventions require combatants to target only military targets, make all feasible efforts to avoid civilians and keep military actions in scale with their objectives, said David Crane, professor at the Syracuse University College of Law.
This leaves no ambiguity about Hamas firing rockets at towns or using civilians as human shields, as alleged by Israel, Crane said.
But he added that violations on one side don't excuse them on the other. "Even if the other side is not following the laws, you cannot step away from them," he said.
The United Nations, the European Union and other organisations accuse Israel of using indiscriminate force, particularly in hits on UN buildings and Gaza's civilian infrastructure. Some of the attacks proved deadly.
The military made a general statement saying Israeli soldiers do not target civilians. Israel also has been criticised for using white phosphorus weapons, which can be legitimately used in war to create smoke screens or provide illumination. But Fred Abrahams, of Human Rights Watch, said its use over populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitute a war crime.
Doctors reported phosphorous burns throughout the war.
Abrahams also complained that his group's researchers found 155-mm howitzer shells, which have a 30-yard margin of error and a blast radius of 300 yards. Israel's choice of such weapons over more precise alternatives raises questions of intention, he said.
"When you have an alternative that is GPS-guided and very accurate, why would you use a shell that is much less accurate and has a much larger kill radius?" Abrahams said.
Israel's military said it used all munitions legally, but it has launched an investigation into whether troops used white phosphorus inappropriately.