EXPLAINER: Are Israel, Hamas committing war crimes in Gaza?

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Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip to Israel, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

JERUSALEM – More than a week into their fourth war, Israel and the Hamas militant group already face allegations of possible war crimes in Gaza. Israel says Hamas is using Palestinian civilians as human shields, while critics say Israel is using disproportionate force.

Who's right? It's hard to say, especially in the fog of battle.

The firing of hundreds of imprecise rockets into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian groups is fairly clear-cut. International law prohibits targeting civilians or using indiscriminate force in civilian areas. Rockets slamming into Tel Aviv apartment blocks is a clear violation.

But in Gaza, where 2 million people are packed into a narrow coastal strip, the situation is far murkier. Both sides operate in dense, urban terrain because that's pretty much all there is. Because of the tight space and intense bombardments, there are few safe places for Gazans to go. A blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized power in 2007 makes it virtually impossible to leave.

As a grassroots movement, Hamas is deeply embedded in Palestinian society, with a political operation and charities separate from its secretive armed wing. While Israel and Western countries view Hamas as a terrorist organization, it is also Gaza’s de facto government, employing tens of thousands of people as civil servants and police. So just being connected to Hamas doesn’t mean someone is a combatant, and there are many in Gaza who oppose the group — and all are equally exposed with nowhere to run.

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants during the last war, in 2014. Both sides already appear to be using the same tactics in this one.

Here's a look at potential violations of international law.