Hamas backtracks on apology over hurting Israeli civilians

Modified stance highlights conflict in militants’ goals

By Rizek Abdel Jawad
Associated Press / February 7, 2010

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The Hamas government in Gaza yesterday backtracked on its apology last week in which it expressed regret for harming Israeli civilians in rocket attacks.

The apology had signaled a rare deviation from Hamas’s violent ideology, and the subsequent zigzag reflects the Islamic militants’ conflicting objectives.

Hamas, which seized Gaza by force in 2007, is trying to reach out to the West in hopes of winning recognition and getting Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. However, Hamas is also reluctant to discard its violent ideology for fear of losing credibility at home.

The apology for the rockets was part of the Hamas government’s response to a UN report that alleged both Hamas and Israel committed war crimes during Israel’s three-week Gaza offensive last winter.

The UN investigators, headed by jurist Richard Goldstone, accused Hamas of firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians. The UN report also said Israel used disproportionate force and deliberately targeted civilians. Some 1,400 Gazans were killed, among them hundreds of civilians, as well as 13 Israelis.

During the war, Gaza militants fired some 800 rockets and mortar shells into Israel, killing three Israeli civilians and wounding about 80.

Hamas wrote to the UN that its primitive rockets were not intended to hit civilians, but often strayed from their course. It said the rockets were meant to defend Gazans against Israeli military strikes, but also maintained that the Palestinians have a right to resist Israeli occupation.

“We apologize for any harm that might have come to Israeli civilians,’’ the Hamas government wrote.

Yesterday, the government said the response to the UN was misinterpreted. “The report that was submitted regarding the Goldstone report does not include any apologies and what took place was an incorrect interpretation of some of its wording,’’ the government said.

It did not attempt to explain the contradiction, and Hamas officials declined comment.

Israel rejected Hamas’s initial apology, and struck a hard line with yesterday’s backtracking.

“Hamas is a terror organization whose main purpose is to attack civilians, so it’s not surprising that they would retract their apology,’’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Andy David said yesterday.

Gaza militants have been firing rockets at Israeli border towns since 2002.

Hamas probably came under domestic pressure to retract the apology after it became public, said Gaza analyst Naji Sharrab. “They are addressing two different audiences,’’ Sharrab said of Hamas.

Hamas militants have maintained an informal truce with Israel since the war ended in January 2009, but smaller Palestinian groups continue to fire salvos sporadically.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly urged Hamas to halt the attacks, saying they are counterproductive and harm Palestinian interests.

Abbas’s Fatah movement, which lost Gaza to Hamas in 2007 and now holds power only in the West Bank, said yesterday the apology was proof Hamas had erred. “With this apology, Hamas acknowledged that these rockets and this kind of resistance does not serve the Palestinian interest,’’ Fatah said.

Hamas and Israel handed over their reports to the UN recently, after the UN General Assembly urged both sides in November to investigate their actions during the Gaza war. Both Israel and Hamas have rejected the war crimes allegations.