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Amnesty accuses Israel of war crimes
Israel committed war crimes, including unlawful killings, during a military offensive in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus earlier this year, the human rights group Amnesty International said Tuesday.
The Israeli military said the offensive was launched in self-defence, in response to Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians.
In its report, Amnesty said there is "clear evidence that some of the act committed by the Israel Defence Forces during Operation Defence Shield were war crimes."
Israeli carried out "unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, wanton destruction of hundreds of homes," Amnesty wrote. The group has also accused Palestinian suicide bombers of crimes against humanity.
The latest report said soldiers blocked access to ambulances and denied humanitarian assistance, leaving the wounded and dead lying in the streets for days, and used Palestinians as "human shields" while searching for suspected militants.
"Up to now, the Israeli authorities have failed in their responsibility to bring to justice the perpetrators of serious human rights violations," the Amnesty report said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Daniel Taub accused Amnesty of ignoring the reasons for the military incursions. "The report describes Israel as going into the West Bank as if this happened in a vacuum," Taub said.
"There really are dilemmas here for any democracy," Taub said, who accused Palestinian fighters of using residential neighbourhoods and ambulances for cover during the fighting.
The Amnesty report said that more than half the Palestinians killed in Jenin were civilians, but did not give specific figures. At least 16 of the 80 people killed in Nablus were women and children, Amnesty reported.
Former Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres said too much weight should not be placed on the Amnesty report.
"Amnesty is an organization that tries to create . . . a better world, but they are not a court and not judges," he said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the report was "very important" and called on the international community to bring an end to Israel's military occupation of Palestinian areas.
Israel launched a West Bank offensive March 29 after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis. Jenin was the site of the heaviest fighting, and 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed.
"This terrorist infrastructure was established in the heart of an innocent Palestinian population that served as a cover," the army said in a statement.
Israel has said intense fighting sometimes made it impossible for ambulances to get to the wounded, and said in one case last month, a smuggled explosives belt was found inside a Palestinian ambulance transporting a sick child.
Kathleen Cavanaugh, a researcher for Amnesty International, said Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, who is to become Israel's new defence minister this week, could be charged with war crimes for his role as the army's chief of staff during the incursions.
Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman applauded the report's accusations against Israel.
"The (United Nations) Security Council and the parties that signed the Geneva Conventions should take this report as proof of war crimes committed by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people and act immediately to punish the (Ariel) Sharon government," Rahman said.
The UN investigated the Jenin fighting after Palestinians alleged Israel had committed a massacre in the refugee camp. The UN ruled that there was no evidence to support the Palestinian claims, and said both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants had violated international law.
Amnesty said the Israeli army had failed to "impartially and thoroughly" investigate the events in Jenin.
The report documents witness accounts from Palestinians present during the springtime fighting. They tell stories of torture, beatings of prisoners who were stripped down to their underwear and of soldiers demolishing homes with residents still inside, leaving them to die in the rubble.
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