A leading international rights group has accused Israel of committing war crimes during its weeks-long offensive in Gaza, citing three attacks on or near United Nations-run schools converted to house Palestinians displaced by shelling.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it investigated strikes at three separate locations in the besieged enclave, noting that at least 45 people were killed in the raids on the schools.
Based on field research and interviews with witnesses, the New York-based group concluded that no military targets were apparent in the immediate location, and it described assaults in Gaza as indiscriminate.
"The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians," Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage."
The HRW report comes a day after the Israeli military announced it had launched its own probe into cases involving Palestinian civilian casualties during the war, including the shelling of a U.N. school. The move was taken by some to be an attempt to deflect international scrutiny over its conduct during the offensive in Gaza.
The conflict left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians and many of them children, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans were displaced by the violence, with many seeking shelter in U.N.-run schools.
Israel argues that the heavy civilian death toll during the 50-day war was Hamas' fault, accusing the Palestinian group of launching rockets — and drawing retaliation — from school yards, residential areas and mosques. It accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shield.
In one attack, on a school in Beit Hanoun on July 24, Israel said it had fired mortars toward Hamas fighters operating near the building in response to anti-tank fire directed at them. The Israeli military said one mortar landed in the school courtyard, which it claimed to be empty at the time of the raid. But HRW said seven Palestinian witnesses in the territory disputed that claim.
On a strike on July 30, the military said it was again responding to Hamas fire from nearby. HRW said Israel had provided no evidence for this. "In any event, the use of high-explosive heavy-artillery shells so near a shelter filled with civilians constitutes an indiscriminate attack," the group said.
It called another attack in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, "unlawfully disproportionate."
UN and Israeli probes
The U.N. has suggested that both Israel and Hamas fighters may have violated the Geneva Convention. And the global body has already appointed a commission of inquiry to look into possible war crimes, though it is unclear if Israel will cooperate with the investigation.
Following a similar military operation in 2009, a U.N. fact-finding mission headed by renowned South African law expert Richard Goldstone found strong evidence that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes. But Israel did not cooperate with that probe, saying that its conclusions were known in advance.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to seek membership in the International Criminal Court in order to press charges against Israel – a move strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.
In a bid to head off such a move, the Israeli military’s investigation will look into two potential criminal acts, including the school attack in northern Gaza and the July 16 strike on a beach west of Gaza City that killed four boys aged 9 to 11.
The military has beefed up its legal teams and gathered reams of evidence, including photos and video clips, meant to prove that Hamas used civilian areas for cover when firing rockets and to show that Israel showed restraint in its responses.
Noura Erakat, assistant professor at George Mason University and a human rights expert, told Al Jazeera that by deciding to investigate itself, "Israel is seeking to diminish international scrutiny" of its most recent assault on the Gaza Strip.
"In particular, it may be trying to avert a potential International Criminal Court investigation by establishing complementarity,” she said.
Al Jazeera and wire services