Israel: Report 'factually, legally, methodologically flawed'

UN rights office: Israeli Gaza strikes may have ‘systematically violated’ laws of war

Report does not mention Hamas’s October 7 attack, cites six incidents with high casualty counts that it calls ’emblematic’ of a pattern of behavior on Israel’s part

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk listens to delegates after delivering his report of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza during the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 29, 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk listens to delegates after delivering his report of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza during the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 29, 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

The United Nations rights office said Wednesday that Israel’s use of heavy bombs in the Gaza Strip may have systematically violated the laws of war, in a report that Palestinian representatives at the UN welcomed and that Israel said was “factually, legally, and methodologically flawed.”

Palestinian groups have also violated international law, the report said, noting that “Since 7 October 2023, Palestinian armed groups (PAGs) have continued to fire inherently indiscriminate projectiles toward Israel, in violation of International law.”

It cited reports of fatalities from rocket fire on October 7, but did not refer to the other components of Hamas’s October 7 attack, in which thousands of terrorists invaded southern Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 251 hostages.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza in response to the October 7 attack, vowing to destroy Hamas, to return the hostages abducted by Hamas and other terror groups, and to prevent the Gaza Strip from posing a future security threat to Israel.

According to the report, which documented six Israeli strikes in Gaza during the first three months of the war, UN monitoring “strongly indicates that the Israel Defense Forces have systematically failed to comply” with the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions, as well as the prohibition on indiscriminate attack.

“The requirement to select means and methods of warfare that minimize or avoid civilian harm appears to have been systematically violated,” the office said, citing reports of high civilian death tolls and structural damage, and contrasting them with the publicly declared military goals of each strike.

A ball of fire and smoke rises during Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, on October 9, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

The six incidents detailed in the report are emblematic of a broader pattern, the office said, reporting that the strikes were “among hundreds of a similar nature.”

The strikes involve the suspected use of GBU-31 (2,000 lbs), GBU-32 (1,000 lbs) and GBU-39 (250 lbs) bombs from October 9 to December 2, 2023 on residential buildings, a school, refugee camps and a market.

The rights office said it verified 218 deaths from those six attacks, but said in a statement that the information it had received indicated the number of fatalities could be much higher.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. Of these, only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals or through self-reporting by families.

The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

In the report, the UN rights office called on Israel to investigate the incidents, but expressed skepticism about its ability to do so objectively, citing the Military Advocate General’s dual role as both adviser to the military and body in charge of prosecuting offenses.

The office also noted the length of time that elapsed since the incidents without significant public findings and made reference to previous concerns raised in other UN reports about Israel’s ability to investigate and punish violations.

In its initial response to the report, Israel called the document’s analysis “factually legally, and methodologically flawed.” Israel made six objections to the report’s analysis, noting that the list was not exhaustive.

A picture taken from Sderot on October 20, 2023, shows smoke ascending over the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli airstrike. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP)

The objections included an alleged lack of attention to operational constraints, a reliance on public information, and a focus on the outcome of military decisions rather than the real-time process through which the decisions were made.

The response made reference to each of the six incidents listed in the original report, naming a number of military targets that had not been included in the UN document and asserting that at least some of the UN’s presentation of those incidents was “factually wrong, and [led] to a flawed legal conclusion.”

Israel’s response also criticized the UN report for citing casualty numbers from the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, listing 13 “identified Hamas and [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] militants” that were included on the ministry’s list of the dead.

It also took issue with the report’s assertion that in all but one of the six incidents, “OHCHR [Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] did not document any issuance of warnings, effective or otherwise.

“The general evacuation order issued on 13 October to the south has also not been effective, in light of the continuous strikes in the south,” the UN report charged.

“The IDF has dropped millions of leaflets over areas of expected attacks with instructions to evacuate and how to do so, broadcasted over radio and through social media messages warning civilians… and in many cases made individual phone calls to occupants of targets, warning them of impending attacks,” Israel responded.

“When circumstances do not permit providing effective advance warning before an attack… there is no legal requirement to do so,” the Israeli response added.

While the Palestinian mission to the UN welcomed the rights office report, it requested, in a response published alongside Israel’s, that the office “emphasize that this list of incidents is non-exhaustive.”

The Palestinian response listed what it said were “other emblematic incidents not mentioned in the report,” beginning with “bombing Al Ahli Hospital”— presumably a reference to the October blast in Gaza City widely recognized to have been caused by an errant Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.

The Palestinian response also cited a number of other specific incidents, placing special emphasis on several that took place in houses of worship. The response also objected to the UN’s use of the phrase “Israeli defense forces,” and its reference to the fighting as “hostilities.”

The scorched parking lot of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City after an overnight blast there, October 18, 2023. (Courtesy; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“The State of Palestine notes that such terms are legally and politically imprecise and undermines (sic) the scale of Israel’s onslaught [of] genocidal acts against the Palestinian people,” it said.

Israel has come under widespread allegations that it has violated international law over the course of the war, all charges that Israel strenuously rejects.

In December, South Africa brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, accusing the country of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Dozens of countries have expressed support for the case, and a number of countries have formally joined the proceedings.

The court has issued several preliminary orders in the case, including, last month, an ambiguous order that was widely but not unanimously interpreted to enjoin Israel from invading the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Some legal interpreters, including justices on the court itself, interpreted the order as merely prohibiting actions that would violate the genocide convention, rather than asserting that operations in Rafah have done or would do so.

The International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals, has also said that it may issue arrest warrants against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of crimes against humanity, as well as against Hamas leaders.

Israel and several of its allies have condemned the proposed warrants against Israeli leaders, asserting that Israel’s behavior is in line with international law, and that it possesses the means and willingness to investigate and punish any potential breaches, negating the ICC’s authority to intervene.

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