JERUSALEM Missile-firing Israeli drones unlawfully killed at least 29 Palestinian civilians during the Gaza Strip war, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
Despite having advanced surveillance equipment, drone operators failed to exercise proper caution "as required by the laws of war" in verifying their targets were combatants, the New York-based monitoring group said, issuing a 39-page report that described six alleged strikes by remote-controlled aircraft.
Israel has a fleet of spy drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but refuses to confirm or deny widespread beliefs that some of the aircraft also carry weapons.
The military cast doubt on Human Rights Watch's research methods -- a criticism echoed by some independent experts -- and, in a statement, asserted that all Israeli actions "conform to international law, as do the weapons and munitions used."
Israel launched its December-January offensive to counter rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza, and has since weathered foreign censure over the killing of some 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians, during the fighting.
Human Rights Watch based its findings primarily on debris from Israeli-made Spike missiles, which it said are fired from drones. The report also called on Israel to publish drone surveillance footage, to show how targets were identified.
Spike's state-owned manufacturer, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., says the missile, which has been sold widely abroad, can be fired by helicopters, infantry and naval craft.
Asked how it was possible to know that the Spikes in question had been fired by drones rather than these other means, Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch's senior military analyst, cited the corroboration of Palestinians who said they had seen or heard the pilotless planes.
The value of such forensics was disputed by Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons.
He said that while low-flying drones are often visible, the aircraft can reach operational heights of 12,000 feet, at which sightings would be much harder. The launch of a missile at that altitude would likely elude the naked eye.
Garlasco said he did not know at what height the drones described in the Human Rights Watch report were flying. He also said that two of the incidents cited in the report took place in the evening or night -- a further obstacle to witness sightings.
"Human Rights Watch makes a lot of claims and assumptions about weapons and drones, all of which is still fairly speculative, because we have so little evidence," Hewson said.
According to Garlasco, locals heard the buzz of drone propellers during the alleged air strikes rather than rotors that might have suggested the missiles were helicopter-fired.
Retired British army colonel Richard Kemp, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, questioned whether such distinctions could be made, not least as the Spike's range is 8 km (5 miles) -- enough to put helicopters or naval boats out of earshot.
"In a battlefield, in an urban environment, with all the other noises, it's certainly more than likely you would not hear something five miles away," he said.
Despite his misgivings about the report, Hewson said it pointed to a broader problem of Israeli military doctrine.
"What Israel has is total intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (over Gaza), which makes it extremely difficult for them to deny they knew who they were shooting at most of the time," he said.
"So how has there been this incredible number of civilian casualties, many of whom appear to have been killed by precision missiles, even if we can't know where the missiles came from?"
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)