GAZA Hamas, in an unusual move that seems unlikely to herald a change in tactics by the Islamist group, has expressed regret for the deaths of Israeli civilians in Palestinian rocket attacks during fighting in Gaza a year ago.
Israel, where Hamas suicide bombers have killed hundreds of civilians over two decades, dismissed any apology for the three non-combatants hit by rockets from Gaza in the war as insincere.
In a report by a committee set up by Hamas to examine U.N. allegations of war crimes by its fighters, 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.
In response to the report, delivered to the United Nations this week, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on Friday: "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?"
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 December 27, 2008. Israel and the Palestinians were urged by U.N. investigator Richard Goldstone in September to conduct credible inquiries into possible war crimes committed by their forces.
Both sides presented documents to the United Nations in recent days which they say showed they had conducted suitable investigations. In a message on Thursday to the General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withheld judgment on whether either party had met Goldstone's recommendations.
U.N. 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.
Over 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."
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, writing by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem)