Says Hamas violated international humanitarian law

UN rights chief: Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza may constitute ‘war crimes’

But High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet notes IDF did take ‘precautions’ such as advance warning, says charge applies if attacks were indiscriminate in impact on civilians

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attends a meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attends a meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Israel’s recent barrage of deadly airstrikes on the Gaza Strip during an 11-day clash with the Hamas terror group might be war crimes, the UN rights chief said Thursday, adding she had seen no evidence the attacked buildings were used for military purposes. She also said Hamas had violated international humanitarian law.

Addressing a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet voiced deep concern about the surge in deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians earlier this month.

“Although Israel undertook a number of precautions, such as advance warning of attacks in some cases, airstrikes in such densely populated areas resulted in a high level of civilian fatalities and injuries, as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure,” she said.

“If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate in their impact on civilians and civilian objects, such attacks may constitute war crimes.”

Israel — backed at times by the United States — accuses the council of anti-Israel bias and has generally refused to cooperate with its investigators. Israel’s ambassador, Meirav Eilon Shahar, has called on member states to oppose Thursday’s meeting.

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Before a truce took hold last Friday, over 4,300 rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza at Israel claimed 13 lives, including a child and a teenager, and wounding some 357 people. Israeli retaliatory airstrikes and artillery fire on Gaza killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children and teens, and wounded more than 1,900 people in 11 days of conflict, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says.

Bachelet said that Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks during the conflict was also a clear violation of the rules of war and called on “Hamas and all armed groups to refrain from use of indiscriminate rockets and mortars, for which there must be accountability.”

In an apparent allusion to Hamas tactics, she said it was a violation of international humanitarian law to locate military assets in densely populated civilian areas, or to launch attacks from them.

Hamas “rockets are indiscriminate and fail to distinguish between military and civilian objects, and their use, thereby, constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” she added. “However, the actions of one party do not absolve the other from its obligations under international law.”

In this May 10, 2021, photo rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

“Unless the root causes of the violence are addressed, it will certainly be a matter of time until the next round of violence commences with further pain and suffering for civilians on all sides, “ she also said.

“There is no doubt that Israel has the right to defend its citizens and residents,” she said. “However, Palestinians have rights too. The same rights.”

The UN rights chief highlighted the scale of the destruction in Gaza.

“Although reportedly targeting members of armed groups and their military infrastructure, Israeli attacks resulted in extensive civilian deaths and injuries, as well as large-scale destruction and damage to civilian objects,” she said.

She pointed out that governmental buildings, residential homes, international humanitarian organizations, medical facilities, and media offices had been hit.

“Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard,” she said.

The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, May 15, 2021. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

The 47-member council was debating a draft resolution to launch a broad, international investigation into violations surrounding the latest Gaza violence, but also of “systematic” abuses in the Palestinian territories and inside Israel.

The daylong debate involved personal accounts from Palestinians — such as that of a young woman journalist from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, an early flashpoint that preceded the Gaza violence — as well as statements from the council’s 47 member states and also observer states.

The Organization of Islamic Conference has presented a resolution that, if passed by the council, would mark an unprecedented level of scrutiny authorized by the council by setting up a permanent commission to report on human rights violations in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

A vote on the draft resolution was likely at the end of the session, which is largely virtual.

Flames and smoke billowing after an Israeli airstrike on the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/FLASH90)

Bachelet’s remarks came after earlier this week the head of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency in the Gaza Strip was forced to apologize for saying that Israel appeared to have been “precise” in hitting mostly military targets.

UNRWA Gaza director Matthias Schmale’s interview on Sunday with Channel 12 prompted outrage from the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza and other Palestinian organizations, which accused him of exonerating Israel for the death of civilians in the 11 days of fighting that ended with a ceasefire on Friday.

In the interview, Schmale was asked about the IDF’s assertation that its military strikes were very precise.

“So yes they did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets, but the viciousness and ferocity of the strikes was heavily felt,” he said, adding that more than 60 children were killed, including 19 who went to a UNRWA school.

“So the precision was there, but there was an unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side,” he said.

Despite his clarification, the remarks drew outrage from Palestinians. Later Tuesday, Schmale issued an apology, saying, “There is no justification whatsoever for killing civilians.”

“Many people were killed or have been severely injured by direct strikes or collateral damage from strikes. In a place as densely populated as Gaza, any strike will have huge damaging effects on people and buildings,” he said.

Israeli military officials acknowledge that many Palestinian civilian casualties were indeed caused — directly or indirectly — by Israeli bombs. In one case, in which at least 10 people including eight children were killed in the Shati refugee camp, the IDF believes a missile strike on an underground bunker caused the ground above to give way, collapsing the homes of at least two families.

The military describes such civilian casualties as being the unfortunate result of Hamas’s strategy of intentionally operating within densely populated areas to use the residents as civilian shields. Human rights groups, however, regularly accuse Israel of using disproportionate force in such situations.

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