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Persons involved in suicide terror strikes commit crimes against humanity and war crimes, says Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization based in New York. The organization's conclusions on such terror strikes are being released today in a new report: "Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians."

The report analyzes the modes of operation and organizational structure of Palestinian groups that have taken responsibility for suicide strikes. It also details international standards that prohibit attacks against civilians, and examines the terror organizations' finances and the role played by the Palestinian Authority.

The Human Rights Watch report emphasizes that international law and the rules of war impose an absolute, unconditional ban on harming civilians.

The report explicitly names the political leaderships of the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as being responsible for the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Due to these organizations' centralized power structures, it is inconceivable that terror strikes could be carried out without instructions and inspiration from their top political leadership echelons, writes the report.

The report accords political responsibility - but not criminal responsibility - to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, headed by Chairman Yasser Arafat, for war crimes carried out by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The brigades, which are Fatah's military arm, operate with relative autonomy in local areas; and, the report explains, its findings suggest that Fatah's military wing does not take orders from the PA's, or Fatah's, political leaderships.

The report's writers reject a distinction drawn by some Palestinians between attacks on Jewish civilian settlers and strikes on Israeli civilians within the Green Line. International law, the authors declare, prohibits terror attacks against both types of civilians, as well as strikes on reservist soldiers and soldiers who are not on duty.

In an earlier report, released last May, Human Rights Watch accused the Israel Defense Forces of committing war crimes in Jenin, and demanded that IDF soldiers responsible for the offenses face charges.

Several times in the new report, the human rights group reiterates that violations of international law by one armed party does not warrant infringement of the law by the opposing side.

The new report charges that the Palestinian Authority failed to act to stop terror strikes. The PA's failures in this respect apply to periods when it still had the wherewithal to constrain terror (this was before major parts of the PA's security apparatus were destroyed).

The report's authors say that PA officials have behaved as though their duty to put murderous terrorists on trial is open to negotiation, and not unconditional.

Members of the human rights organization closely studied internal Palestinian Authority documents seized by Israel's Shin Bet security service and released by the IDF. Basing its conclusion on this released material, the Human Rights Watch concludes that there is no evidence proving that Arafat or the PA political leadership planned or ordered terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Nor do these documents prove conclusively that Arafat and the PA were in a position to control effectively activities undertaken by the organizations which have perpetrated terror, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Human Rights Watch field workers, researchers and writers have been working on the report since last May. Field workers met with victims injured in suicide strikes and members of their families; they also met with relatives of the suicide bombers and with senior officials and rank-and-file members of the various Palestinian organizations.

Joe Stork, now the Washington director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, formerly served as the chief editor of the Middle East Report, and was a consistent critic of Israel's occupation in the territories and an advocate of Palestinian independence. Asked yesterday whether his organization's report changed his views about the Palestinians and their struggle, he replied that the findings about the Palestinian leadership infuriated him. He said he is outraged by the PA leadership's inactivity; Stork said it is regrettable that discussions about suicide terror attacks among the PA leadership, and some sectors of Palestinian society, have focused on issues of Palestinian interests, and have overlooked the fact that the acts are violations of international law.

But what about the occupation? the Palestinians reply

Members of the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian have received copies of the Human Rights Watch report. They have in recent days met in the Gaza Strip with one of the report's authors. As they see it, the report's depiction of the general context of the Israeli occupation is inadequate; nor does the report accurately describe Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians. The organization officials charge that the report fails to take into account Israel's military superiority and ignores the fact that Israel did not cease to harm civilians even at times when Palestinian organizations met obligations and suspended attacks on Israeli civilians.

Yesterday Human Rights Watch delegates met with Zuheir Manasrah, head of PA Preventive Security on the West Bank. Manasrah, a former governor of Jenin who criticized suicide terror attacks, told the human rights group's workers that the PA is helpless to act against the terror strikes owing to systematic IDF offensives against PA security forces. Like the members of the Hamas and the other organizations, Manasrah complained that the new report's findings are disproportionately harsh on the Palestinians.

Human Rights Watch, Manasrah explained, does not use the term "crimes against humanity" in reference to Israeli activity in the territories.

Steve Crawshaw, director of Human Rights Watch's London branch, said that the use of this term emphasizes that suicide terror attacks are perpetrated with a deliberate aim of harming civilians. Crawshaw added that his organization has in the past released investigative reports criticizing Israeli policies. (A.H)