JERUSALEM (AFP) — Amnesty International on Thursday accused Israeli forces of war crimes, saying they used children as human shields and conducted wanton attacks on civilians during their offensive in the Gaza Strip.
The London-based human rights group also accused Hamas of war crimes, but said it found no evidence that the Islamist rulers of Gaza used civilians as human shields during the 22-day offensive Israel launched on December 28.
It also reiterated its call for an international arms embargo against Israel.
"Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects," Amnesty said in a study.
Israeli troops forced Palestinians to stay in one room of their home while turning the rest of the house into a base and sniper position, "effectively using the families, both adults and children, as human shields and putting them at risk," the group said.
"Intentionally using civilians to shield a military objective, often referred to as using 'human shields' is a war crime," Amnesty said.
It could not support Israeli claims that Hamas used human shields. It said it found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings.
However, the report did point out that Hamas and other armed groups fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel. "Such unlawful attacks constitute war crimes and are unacceptable," said Donatella Rovera, who led an Amnesty mission to Gaza and southern Israel.
More than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died during the offensive Israel launched in response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants.
Amnesty said 300 children were among those killed.
"Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks carried out using high-precision weapons, air-delivered bombs and missiles, and tank shells.
"Others, including women and children, were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers," it said.
"Most of the cases investigated by Amnesty International of close-range shootings involve individuals, including children and women, who were shot at as they were fleeing their homes in search of shelter.
"Others were going about their daily activities. The evidence indicates that none could have reasonably been perceived as a threat to the soldiers who shot them and that there was no fighting going on in their vicinity when they were shot," the report said, adding that "wilful killings of unarmed civilians are war crimes."
It said Israel's use of white phosphorus shells was also a clear breach of international law.
White phosphorus is not illegal if used as a smokescreen in open areas "but it should not be used in a densely populated area as it was used here," Rovera told AFP, adding that her team saw Palestinians with "hideous burns" from white phosphorus shells.
Amnesty also said Israel's initial denial it used phosphorus caused further deaths.
"People could have been saved if the army had admitted using white phosphorus, rather than continuing to deny it," Rovera said. "Then they could have received the care that was necessary.
The rights group was also critical of Israel's use of flechette rounds -- artillery shells which explode to emit hundreds of steel darts.
These are designed for use in open battle but were employed by Israel in built-up areas, a clear breach of the international rules of war, said Chris Cobb-Smith, an artillery expert engaged by Amnesty.
With its dazzling array of high-tech weaponry, Israel was perfectly capable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets, he told AFP.
Asked if Israel had deliberately targetted unarmed civilians, he said it was "very difficult to come to any other conclusion".
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.