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UN Gaza report: Israel, Hamas may be guilty of war crimes

Human Rights Council faults IDF for treating residential buildings as ‘legitimate military objectives,’ says possible evidence of ‘willful’ killings of civilians; Foreign Ministry blasts ‘biased’ commission

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Palestinians collect their belongings from homes destroyed by Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Tuesday, August 4, 2014. (photo credit: Emad Nasser/Flash90)
Palestinians collect their belongings from homes destroyed by Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Tuesday, August 4, 2014. (photo credit: Emad Nasser/Flash90)

Both Israel and the Palestinian militant groups in Gaza may have committed war crimes during the 50-day conflict last summer, a United Nations report said Monday. Israel said it would study the report, but rejected the “morally flawed” mandate given to the UNHRC to investigate the war.

The UN Human Rights Council report (download) placed blame on both parties but focused more on Israel’s role. It also accepted the Palestinian death count, which has Israel killing 1,462 civilians out of a total of 2,251 Palestinians who died — a 65 percent ratio.

Israel’s internal report found that only 56% of the dead were civilians, a figure that supports Israel’s stated emphasis on proportionality and discernment during war.

The UN report found that there is “little or no information available to explain why residential buildings, which are prima facie civilian objects immune from attack, were considered to be legitimate military objectives,” and ruled that “the onus is on Israel” to explain its methods.

The roof-knocking technique, in which Israel fired warning rounds on some occasions ahead of an attack to warn civilians to evacuate their building, “cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike,” the report said.

Chairperson of Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza, Mary McGowan Davis (R) speaks next to Commission member Doudou Diene during a press conference on their report on June 22, 2015 at the United Nations Office in Geneva (AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI)
Chairperson of Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza, Mary McGowan Davis (R) speaks next to Commission member Doudou Diene during a press conference on their report on June 22, 2015 at the United Nations Office in Geneva (AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI)

According to the report, at least 142 families lost three or more members in an attack on residential buildings during last summer’s war, resulting in 742 deaths.

“The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of airstrikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises questions of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government,” the commission said in a statement.

The commission also voiced concern that a sense of “impunity prevails across the board for violations… allegedly committed by Israeli forces, whether it be in the context of active hostilities in Gaza or killings, torture and ill-treatment in the West Bank.”

The commission found several instances in which Palestinian civilians uninvolved in the hostilities were targeted, including children and adults carrying white flags. The people did not represent a threat to the Israeli soldiers operating in the area, the report said. It cited Salem Shamaly, who was allegedly killed during a humanitarian pause while searching for a lost relative. The incident was recorded.

“Directing attacks against civilians constitutes a violation of the principle of distinction and may amount to a war crime,” the report said. “These acts may also constitute willful killings.”

The investigators urged Israel to “break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable.”

The report also found that the “indiscriminate” targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian rockets “may amount to a war crime.”

“The hostilities also caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of civilians in Israel,” the commission’s statement said. “Witnesses living near Gaza spoke of being disturbed by seeing the bombing from their sitting room windows but also struggled to reach shelters in time with their children when the sirens alerted them to incoming attacks. The indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel appeared to have the intention of spreading terror among civilians there.

“In addition the Israeli military discovered 14 tunnels extending from Gaza into Israel that were used to attack their soldiers during this period,” the statement said. “The idea of the tunnels traumatized Israeli civilians who feared they could be attacked at any moment by gunmen bursting out of the ground.”

A Palestinian man looks at what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel, in the area of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 5, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian man looks at what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel, in the area of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 5, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The commission further found that the Hamas executions of 21 Palestinians accused of serving as Israeli collaborators “constitute a violation of article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and therefore amount to a war crime.”

In a first response to the report, the Foreign Ministry said the Israeli government was in the process of examining the findings but rejected the “morally flawed” mandate given to the UNHRC to investigate the war.

“It is regrettable that the report fails to recognize the profound difference between Israel’s moral behavior during Operation Protective Edge and the terror organizations it confronted,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This report was commissioned by a notoriously biased institution, given an obviously biased mandate, and initially headed by a grossly biased chairperson, William Schabas,” the statement said, noting the UNHRC’s outsize treatment — in relation to major human rights offenders Iran, North Korea and others — of Israel’s alleged offenses.

“Israel is a democracy committed to the rule of law, forced to defend itself against Palestinian terrorists who commit a double war crime: They indiscriminately target Israeli civilians while deliberately endangering Palestinian civilians, including children, by using them as human shields,” the Israeli statement said.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted that the report would be “a waste of time” and derided the commission of inquiry into the war, calling it an attempt “to blacken [the name] of the State of Israel.”

Israeli officials refused to cooperate with the probe and have dismissed it ever since the formation of the panel as biased and pre-written.

Schabas, the Canadian Jewish professor who initially headed the HRC panel, resigned in February amid charges by Israel of bias and was replaced by former New York judge Mary McGowan Davis.

AFP contributed to this report.

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