Hamas Acknowledges Its Forces Fired Rockets From Civilian Areas

Israeli army providing more evidence of attacks. Hamas spokesman says group had little choice because Gaza is a narrow and tightly spaced urban area.

AP

Two weeks after the end of the Gaza war, there is growing evidence that Hamas militants used residential areas as cover for launching rockets at Israel, at least at times. Even Hamas now admits "mistakes" were made.

But Hamas says it had little choice in Gaza's crowded urban landscape, took safeguards to keep people away from the fighting, and that a heavy-handed Israeli response is to blame for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

"Gaza, from Beit Hanoun in the north to Rafah in the south, is one uninterrupted urban chain that Israel has turned into a war zone," said Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza.

Increasingly, the discussion is not about whether the Hamas rockets were fired from civilian areas, but exactly how close they were to the actual buildings.

"The Israelis kept saying rockets were fired from schools or hospitals when in fact they were fired 200 or 300 meters (yards) away. Still, there were some mistakes made and they were quickly dealt with," Hamad told The Associated Press, offering the first acknowledgment by a Hamas official that, in some cases, militants fired rockets from or near residential areas or civilian facilities.

The questions lie at the heart of a brewing international legal confrontation: Did Hamas deliberately and systematically fire rockets at Israel from homes, hospitals and schools in the hope that Israel would be deterred from retaliating, as Israel claims? Or did Israel use force excessively, resulting in deaths among people not involved in combat operations?

The answers could help determine whether Israel — or Hamas — or both are ultimately accused of violating the international laws of war in a conflict that caused tremendous damage.

According to Palestinian figures, nearly 2,200 Palestinians were killed — roughly three quarters of them civilians and including more than 500 children — and 11,000 were wounded. The war also left some 100,000 homeless. Seventy-two people were killed on the Israeli side, including six civilians.

Ahead of a U.N. investigation, the Israeli military has released reams of evidence, including satellite photos and aerial footage, to support its claims that it acted responsibly and attempted to minimize Palestinian casualties. It asserts that Hamas made no effort to disguise its attempt to maximize Israeli civilian casualties.

Throughout the war, the Israeli air force compiled dozens of video clips showing alleged wrongdoing by Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction.

These videos, many of them posted on YouTube, appear to show rockets flying out of residential neighborhoods, cemeteries, schoolyards and mosque courtyards. There are also images of weapons caches purportedly uncovered inside mosques, and tunnels allegedly used by militants to scurry between homes, mosques and buildings.

"Hamas' excuses are outrageous, misleading and contrary to the evidence supplied by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and the reality documented by international journalists on the ground in Gaza," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

But a black-and-white satellite image released by the Israeli military illustrates the difficulties in proving the point. The army says the image, taken of the Gaza City neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, shows four rocket launch sites sitting next to a cluster of schools and a nearby residential neighborhood.

Such images, it says, are evidence that Hamas used built-up areas for cover — and carelessly exposed civilians to danger in Israeli retaliatory strikes. However, the image itself is grainy and shows no clear signs of rocket activity, though rocket launchers are often hidden underground. The army refused to say how it had made its conclusions.

A visit to the area this week found three separate military sites — possibly training grounds — slightly larger than football fields located close to the state schools.

The sites are mostly concealed from street view by barriers made of corrugated iron, but one bore the sign of Hamas' military wing, al-Qassam Brigades, while another bore the sign of the Islamic Jihad, a militant group allied with Hamas. The bases were deserted. Visible from the outside were human cutout figures and what appeared to be exercise hurdles.

There were no overt signs of rocket launchers or craters in the ground outside, though dirt appeared to have been disturbed either by some sort of blast or the work of heavy military-type trucks. There were pieces of mangled concrete scattered on the ground. The school buildings appeared untouched.

Hamas tightly restricts access to such facilities, and it was impossible for photographers to enter the sites. Israel confirmed the area was targeted in airstrikes.

Meantime, in a report on Thursday, the international group Human Rights Watch accused Israel of war crimes in three attacks on Gaza schools that housed displaced people.

The seven-week conflict, Israel's Operation Protective Edge, ended August 26 in a cease-fire.