UN chief: Israel ‘obviously’ used excessive force in Jenin; Israel demands retraction

Guterres dodges question on UN war crimes allegation, blames Israel for ‘worst violence’ in West Bank in years; UN envoy Erdan: ‘Shameful’ statements ‘detached from reality’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 1, 2023. (Richard Pierrin/AFP)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 1, 2023. (Richard Pierrin/AFP)

NEW YORK — UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday said Israel used excessive force in the counter-terror operation in Jenin earlier this week and blamed Israel for the violence in the West Bank city.

During a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York City, Guterres said he had been “deeply disturbed” by news of the Jenin operation and “strongly condemns all acts of violence against civilians.”

Asked if his condemnation applied to both sides of the conflict, Guterres said, “It applies to all use of excessive force and obviously in this situation there was an excessive force used by Israeli forces.”

“Israeli airstrikes and ground operations in a crowded refugee camp were the worst violence in the West Bank in many years, with a significant impact on civilians,” Guterres said, blaming Israel for disruptions to water and electricity services, and blocking people from accessing medical care, a charge that Israel denied.

“I once again call on Israel to abide by its obligations under international law, including the duty to exercise restraint and use only proportional force,” Guterres said. “The use of airstrikes is inconsistent with the conduct of law enforcement operations.”

“I understand Israel’s legitimate concerns with its security but escalation is not the answer,” he added. “It simply bolsters radicalization and leads to a deepening cycle of violence and bloodshed.”

The two-day Israeli operation came in response to a series of deadly terror attacks, many emanating from Jenin and its environs, an area Israeli security forces see as a hotbed of terrorism. The IDF said all of the operation’s 12 Palestinian fatalities were combatants, and most have been claimed by terror groups. Some of the dozens of injured were non-combatants, the IDF said. One Israeli soldier was killed.

A convoy of army vehicles is seen during an Israeli military raid in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

On Wednesday, the UN special rapporteur for the Palestinians, Francesca Albanese, accused Israel of committing possible war crimes during the Jenin operation. Albanese has a history of antisemitism and incendiary rhetoric against the Jewish state, and places sole blame for the conflict on Israel.

Albanese’s Thursday statement, issued with two other UN rapporteurs, said there was no legal justification for the Jenin operation. The statement made no mention of Palestinian terrorism, Jenin terror groups, that the fatalities were combatants, or that the IDF recovered large amounts of weaponry in civilian buildings in Jenin.

Asked about Albanese’s war crimes allegations on Thursday, Guterres avoided answering.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, blasted Guterres’s statements as “shameful, farfetched, and completely detached from reality.”

Gilad Erdan, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, January 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

“Time after time the UN Secretary-General disregards brutal Palestinian terror and neglects to condemn the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians,” Erdan told The Times of Israel. “Yet when discussing defensive IDF actions aimed solely at dismantling terror infrastructure, the Secretary-General is quick to issue extensive condemnations of Israel, completely detached from the truth.”

Erdan demanded Guterres retract his comments and “condemn the Palestinian terrorism and incitement.”

The American Jewish Committee said it “strongly rejects” the comments.

“The facts speak for themselves: Responding to a wave of terror attacks directed from Jenin and in the midst of a densely populated area, Israel successfully completed its mission — seizing hundreds of explosive devices, shuttering weapons labs, neutralizing 12 terrorists in firefights,” the American Jewish Committee said.

On Tuesday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk decried the cycle of violence in Israel and the West Bank, after a Palestinian terrorist wounded seven people in a car ramming and stabbing spree in Tel Aviv. One of the injured was a pregnant woman who lost her unborn child as a result of her wounds.

Turk said the scale of the Jenin operation, including the use of repeated airstrikes, along with the destruction of property, raised serious issues regarding international human rights norms and standards.

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk answers AFP journalists’ questions during an interview at his office, in Geneva, on January 4, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Some of the methods and weapons used “are more generally associated with the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict, rather than law enforcement,” he said.

“The use of airstrikes is inconsistent with rules applicable to the conduct of law enforcement operations. In a context of occupation, the deaths resulting from such airstrikes may also amount to willful killings,” he said.

Turk said the Israeli forces in the West Bank needed to abide by international human rights standards on the use of force.

“These standards do not change simply because the goal of the operation is stated as ‘counter-terrorism,’” he said. Turk’s statement also did not make any other mention of terror groups operating out of the city. IDF forces recovered large quantities of weapons, explosives and other military equipment during the operation, including some stored inside a mosque.

Israel has long complained that the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have a lopsided focus on Israel, with the Jewish state and the US accusing the world bodies of bias and, in some cases, antisemitism.

Top UN human rights officials involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made a number of antisemitic statements, and the General Assembly condemned Israel more than all other countries combined last year.

IDF soldiers at the site of a shooting attack near the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on July 6, 2023. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The West Bank violence continued on Thursday when a Palestinian gunman shot an Israeli soldier dead near the settlement of Kedumim. The shooter was killed by security forces shortly after the attack.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been high across the West Bank for the past year and a half, with the military carrying out near-nightly raids, amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

Since the beginning of this year, Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank have killed 25 people, including Thursday’s shooting.

According to a tally by The Times of Israel, 148 West Bank Palestinians have been killed during that time — most of them during clashes with security forces or while carrying out attacks, but some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under unclear circumstances.

Most Popular
read more: