JERUSALEM -- Amnesty International said on Thursday Israel inflicted "wanton destruction" in the Gaza Strip in attacks that often targeted Palestinian civilians during an offensive in December and January in the Hamas-run enclave.
The London-based rights group, in a 117-page report on the 22 days of fighting, also criticized the Islamist movement Hamas for rocket attacks on Israel, which it called "war crimes."
Among other conclusions, Amnesty said it found no evidence to support Israeli claims that Gaza guerrillas deliberately used civilians as "human shields," but it did, however, cite evidence that Israeli troops put children and other civilians in harm's way by forcing them to remain in homes taken over by soldiers.
Amnesty International said some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, including 300 children and hundreds of innocent civilians, a figure broadly in line with those from the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza and the independent Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The Israeli military put the Palestinian death toll at 1,166 of whom 295 were civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians, during the offensive Israel launched with the declared aim of curtailing cross-border rocket attacks.
Accusing Israel of "breaching laws of war," Amnesty said: "Much of the destruction was wanton and deliberate, and was carried out in a manner and circumstances which indicated that it could not be justified on grounds of military necessity."
Commenting on Amnesty's allegations, the Israeli military said it operated in accordance with international law. It said the report ignored "efforts made by the Israel Defense Forces to minimize, as much as possible, harm to non-combatants."
"In many cases, the Israel Defense Forces exercised measures of caution, including warning the civilian population before an attack," the military said. "The Israel Defense Forces directed its attack only against military targets."
A Hamas spokesman said the Amnesty report did not place enough emphasis on "crimes committed by Israel."
"This report equates between the aggressor and the victim and ignores international laws that guarantee resistance against occupation," the spokesman said.
Israel and Hamas have both rejected accusations of war crimes during the Gaza fighting. Israel has refused to cooperate with a United Nations inquiry that is now gathering evidence, accusing the investigators of prejudice against it.
Amnesty said although rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip rarely cause casualties, their use was "indiscriminate and hence unlawful under international law." The rockets often sow fear and panic.
It also accused Hamas and other armed groups of endangering the lives of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza by firing rockets and locating military equipment near homes.
The report however dismissed Israeli claims that Hamas had used Palestinian civilians as "human shields."
Amnesty said it found no evidence that "Hamas or other armed groups forced residents to stay in or around buildings used by fighters, or that fighters prevented residents from leaving buildings or areas which had been commandeered by militants."
But the report said in several cases Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians, including children, as "human shields, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions."
© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved