WASHINGTON -- Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer argued on Tuesday that Israel is obeying the laws of war and using proportionate force to counter rockets fired from Gaza settlements by members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
"Israel does not target innocent civilians," he said. "But when a hospital or a school is used as a weapons depot or a military headquarters [by Hamas], then it becomes a legitimate target" under the international laws of war.
More than 550 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have died in the past two weeks, according to health officials in Gaza, and human rights groups have begun to question whether Israel is violating international laws of war by failing to distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants. Israel, meanwhile, reports that 25 soldiers have been killed in the conflict, as well as two civilians who were the victims of Hamas-led rocket attacks against Israeli cities.
On Monday the human rights group Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting what it said were eight instances of Israel violating the laws of war by targeting civilians in areas that did not contain Hamas fighters or munitions.
Dermer strongly rejected the findings. "What Human Rights Watch is doing is some sort of kangaroo court, where they'll go later and find the facts," he said. "Wait until all the facts are in, and you'll see: We do not target civilians. It is not the policy of Israel."
Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Dermer said Israel's offensive will continue until it achieves its objective of "sustained peace and quiet," whether militarily or through diplomatic channels.
"We're in a situation where we have to defend our people," Dermer said. "Civilian casualties are a tragedy, and the more civilians in Gaza who are killed, the greater the failure for us."
Dermer's comments came less than a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo, where he will try to work with regional powers to broker an end to the violence that has escalated dramatically since Israel launched a ground offensive against Hamas militants last week.
A proposed ceasefire brokered by Egypt last Tuesday was subsequently rejected by Hamas, which has vowed to continue its rocket attacks into Israel until the international community meets two primary demands: the opening of a major border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which is vital to Gaza's meager economy, and Israel's release of hundreds of Palestinians jailed in a crackdown earlier this month after three Israeli teenagers were murdered.
Dermer repeatedly accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields, thereby giving Israel no choice but to risk civilian casualties when it fires on military installations.
"Hamas is using human shields, not just because of the nature of the [Hamas] regime," he said, but because "it's a strategy that seems to work. What Hamas relies on is that pictures [of civilians killed in Gaza] will lead to pressure on Israel."
Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with more than 1.8 million people living on a 25-mile strip of land. On Monday, Israeli forces bombed a hospital in central Gaza and a high-rise building in Gaza City.
Kerry remained in Cairo on Tuesday, with no scheduled date to return to the U.S.