Bombing of Islamic University: Strategic Target or War Crime?

Four days into Israel's bombing of Hamas targets in Gaza, one hit in particular -- Sunday night's attack on Islamic University -- has prompted angry calls from human rights organizations and Arab critics.

"Why would Israel Bomb a University?" Islamic University of Gaza Fulbright Scholar Dr. Akram Habeeb asked on Life and Death in Israeli-Occupied Palestine, an electronic intifadah Web site .

The answer, according to a spokesman for the Israeli army, is that Islamic University was more than just a learning institution; it also was a Hamas Qassam rocket manufacturing facility, an outpost, a center for weapons research and development and a Hamas storage facility.

"Because of what was happening there, it lost its civilian status immunity," Robbie Sabel, former legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, told FOX News.

According to international law, armies are not permitted to hit civilian targets such as hospitals, homes, schools and houses of worship -- unless the sites are also being used as military bases or launching pads.

"The Islamic University is a gathering place for young militants and it has been for many, many years," U.S. Army Major General Robert Scales (Ret.) told FOX News. "This is not unusual in radical movements.

"We had our Berkeley and Russia had its Moscow University. The other issue, honestly, is that a lot of it has to do with the symbology. It is knocking down the symbols of Hamas authority to diminish them in the eyes … of the rest of the world."

Habeeb saw the attack differently and called the bombing of the university a sign of Israel's moral decline.

"When I learned that Israel had bombed my university with American-made F-16s, I realized that its 'target bank' had gone bankrupt," he wrote. "Of course Israeli politicians and generals would claim that IUG is a Hamas stronghold and that it preaches terrorism.

"As an independent professor, not affiliated with any political party, I can say that IUG is an academic institution which embraces a wide spectrum of political affinities. I see it as [a] prestigious university which encourages liberalism and free thought."

In a statement to The International Middle East Media Center, Islamic University Head Kamaleen Shaath took the sentiment a step further. "…the Israeli Army does not hesitate to hit any target in Gaza as the Israeli Army shelled a mosque, a hospital and several civilian facilities," he wrote.

But senior military and security experts in Israel say Islamic University is much more than an institution of higher education. They say that universities historically have been breeding grounds for radical thought, free speech and protest.

"Look at the demonstrations right now over what's going on in Gaza," Professor Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University's Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy, told FOX News.

"The biggest rallies are at Cairo University. Student unions tend to be very organized."

But does bombing a university violate human rights?

"Let's say someone brought rockets to your house and was shooting them from inside," Meital said. "Do you blow up the house or the street because you think someone's inside shooting? During war, organizations use these institutions -- and holy places of worship -- and then the other side bombs.

"It's very problematic because international organizations say that if a civilian might get hurt, you don't attack."

International security expert and FOX News contributor Wahid Phrares said leaving the university intact would lead to its graduates being recruited by Hamas into its various wings or international institutions.

"In a sense, the university or some of its departments, believe observers, play the role of a hidden Madrass," Phares said.