The Hamas government in Gaza distanced itself on Saturday from an earlier statement in which it expressed regret for harming Israeli civilians in rocket attacks.
Hamas, in an unusual move, expressed regret for the deaths of Israeli civilians in Palestinian rocket attacks during fighting in Gaza a year ago.
That apology was part of the Hamas government's response to a United Nations report that alleged both Hamas and Israel committed war crimes during Israel's Gaza offensive last winter. The UN report, authored by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, accused Hamas of firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians.
On Saturday, the Gaza government said the report it submitted does not include any apologies in this regard.
In the report by a committee set up by Hamas to examine the UN war crimes allegations, the authors said "we regret any harm that may have befallen any Israeli civilian."
"We hope the Israeli civilians understand that their government's continued attacks on us were the key issue and the cause," added the report, of which Reuters obtained a copy.
Mohammed-Faraj al-Ghoul, justice minister in the Hamas government and the chairman of the committee which drafted the report, said on Saturday "some words or phrases were taken out of context. The report held the [Israeli] occupation fully responsible and it did not include apologies."
Israel, where Hamas suicide bombers have killed hundreds of civilians over two decades, had already dismissed any apology for the three non-combatants hit by rockets from Gaza in the war as insincere.
In response to the report, delivered to the UN this week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Friday that "for years Hamas has boasted about deliberately targeting civilians, either through suicide bombings, by gunfire or by rockets. Who are they trying to fool now?"
Hamas' apology was also denounced by a spokesman for the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ahmed Assaf said he was "stunned" at the remark in the UN report this week and said Hamas should apologize rather to fellow Palestinians for deaths and injury caused when Hamas routed Fatah forces to seize control in Gaza in 2007.
Assaf urged Hamas "to apologize first to the Palestinian people for its bloody coup which has ... caused the worst damage to the Palestinian cause."
Dozens were killed in the days of civil war in Gaza. The division of the Palestinian territories between the two rival parties has hamstrung efforts to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Assaf also said that Hamas' statement, issued to deflect UN accusations that its forces committed war crimes by firing rockets from Gaza at nearby Israeli towns, had been an admission that such rocket-fire had not helped ordinary Palestinians.
At least one senior Hamas official, who declined to be named, said the movement remained ready to conduct "martyrdom operations" - suicide bombings of Israeli buses, cafes and the like, which have not, however, been seen for several years.
The Hamas report, after listing Palestinian grievances such as the Israeli embargo on Gaza, reaffirmed comments by officials of the 22-year-old Islamist movement that its improvised rockets were fired purely defensively and were aimed at Israeli military targets. They simply lacked the necessary accuracy, Hamas said.
"It should be noted that the Palestinian resistance...is not an organized army that possesses developed technological weapons," the report said. "It may target a military site or a tank position and their fire goes astray...and hit a civilian location, despite their efforts to avoid hurting civilians."
Israel and independent rights groups say Hamas has broken the laws of war by indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets and mortars around Israeli towns, notably Sderot, close to the Gaza border, in the years since the group won a parliamentary election in 2006 and seized full control in Gaza in 2007.
Some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed in a three-week Israeli offensive launched on Dec. 27, 2008. Israel and the Palestinians were urged by UN investigator Richard Goldstone in September to conduct credible inquiries into possible war crimes committed by their forces.
Both sides presented documents to the UN in recent days which they say showed they had conducted suitable investigations. In a message on Thursday to the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withheld judgment on whether either party had met Goldstone's recommendations.
UN member states "will consult on the further course of action," General Assembly spokesman Jean Victor Nkolo said.
Rights group Amnesty International called Ban's message "deeply disappointing."
"Amnesty International believes that the information [Ban] had received was sufficient to show clearly that the steps taken by both sides have been completely inadequate," it said in a statement.
Israel, which has furiously rejected Goldstone's report as unbalanced, says Hamas deliberately puts Palestinian civilians in harm's way in order to shield its fighters and to exploit international pressure on Israel over civilian deaths.
Diaa al-Madhoun, a Palestinian judge who took part in drafting the report to the United Nations, told Reuters that the expression of regret conformed to what he said was Hamas' "commitment to international humanitarian law."
"It is part of our religion not to target civilians, women, children and the elderly, who do not take part in the aggression against us," he said, echoing language in the Hamas report.
More than 500 Israelis were killed in suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising from 2000. Many of those bombers were sent by Hamas, pursuing what it calls "martyrdom operations."
Asked whether the expression of regret to the United Nations marked a change in that strategy, a Hamas official in Gaza told Reuters: "There is no change in the movement's policy, and that includes our position on the martyrdom operations."
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