U.N. Report on Gaza Finds Evidence of War Crimes by Israel and by Palestinian Militants

U.N. Report on Gaza Finds Evidence of War Crimes by Israel and by Palestinian Militants

Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times

22 June 2015


Image: Palestinian houses destroyed by Israeli shelling in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip in 2014. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

JERUSALEM — A United Nations investigation found “serious violations of international humanitarian law” that “may amount to war crimes” by both Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during their bloody battle last summer, according to a report released on Monday in Geneva.

The report by a commission of the United Nations Human Rights Council said that “impunity prevails across the board” regarding the actions ofIsraeli forces in Gaza, and it called on Israel to “break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable.”

As for Palestinian armed groups, the commission cited the “inherently indiscriminate nature” of rockets and mortars fired at Israeli civilians, condemned the killing of people suspected of being collaborators, and said that the Palestinian authorities had “consistently failed” to bring violators of international law to justice.

“Comprehensive and effective accountability mechanisms for violations allegedly committed by Israel or Palestinian actors will be a key deciding factor of whether Palestinians or Israelis are to be spared yet another round of hostilities and spikes in violations of international law,” the report said.

Israelis taking cover in a large concrete pipe used as a shelter during a rocket attack in Nitzan last year. CreditMenahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The report is expected to serve as a road map for the inquiry into possible war crimes already underway by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Israel last week published an extensive report arguing that its soldiers and commanders adhered to all international laws, and placing the bulk of the blame for Palestinian civilian deaths on Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza and led the fight against Israel.

“We are not here to deliver a guilty verdict with respect to any party,” said Mary McGowan Davis, who led the inquiry, at a news conference in Geneva. She emphasized that the commission was not a judicial process but had collected testimony “in a scrupulously objective fashion” that could lay the basis for a “more thorough investigation” of what happened in Gaza and in the West Bank.

The most the commission could hope for, Ms. McGowan Davis said, was to “push the ball of justice further down the field,” and persuade governments to address “the crying need” for changes in policies regarding the use of weapons with a wide-area effect in densely populated areas. She said the commission also wanted governments to hold accountable those who did not give meticulous attention to protecting the lives of civilians in the conduct of hostilities.

The report, which will be discussed by the Human Rights Council later this month, questioned why Israel’s political and military leadership had not changed its course of action despite considerable information about civilian deaths. That “raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law by these officials, which may amount to war crimes,” it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel quickly condemned the report as “biased,” noting that the Human Rights Council addresses Israel “more than Iran, Syria and North Korea together,” and pointed to recent reports by retired American and European generals that praised the Israeli military’s conduct.

“Israel does not commit war crimes — Israel defends itself against a terror organizations that calls for its destruction, and commits many war crimes.” Mr. Netanyahu said at a meeting of his party in Parliament on Monday afternoon. “We will not sit and did not sit with folded hands,” he added. “We will continue to act with strength and determination against anyone who tries to harm us and our citizens, and we will do this according to international law.”

The United Nations report condemned Israel’s restrictions on Gaza residents’ travel and trade, saying “the blockade and the military operation have led to a protection crisis and chronic, widespread and systematic violations of human rights.”

The commission said that “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented” in Gaza, where it counted 2,251 Palestinian deaths and 18,000 homes destroyed, and also cited “immense distress and disruption” to Israeli civilians, along with $25 million in civilian property damage.

Palestinian and Israeli children were “savagely affected by the events,” the report said in a distinct effort at evenhandedness, adding that children on both sides “suffered from bed-wetting, shaking at night, clinging to parents, nightmares and increased levels of aggressiveness.”

The Israeli government refused to cooperate with the inquiry, saying it was inherently biased.

The criticism was initially focused on the original chairman of the panel, William Schabas, a Canadian law professor who resigned in February after a formal complaint by Israel about, among other things, his having worked as a consultant for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israeli officials have since pointed to what they see as prejudgments in the commission’s founding resolution, which “condemns in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” involved in the “Israeli military assault” on Gaza, saying it “involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks.”

Ms. McGowan Davis, a former justice of the New York State Supreme Court, replaced Mr. Schabas as head of the inquiry. She postponed the report’s release from March, citing a “need to adjust our work” in light of his resignation, and to “weigh with the utmost objectivity” the large amount of materials submitted to the panel, which conducted interviews in Jordan but was not allowed by Israel to enter Gaza for research.

Ms. McGowan Davis has also faced scrutiny after being one of the writers of a 2011 report on how Israel handled allegations of operational misconduct during Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2008-9. That report found that Israel had investigated hundreds of allegations but that it had taken little disciplinary action and that it had never looked into those responsible for planning and managing the operation.

Many Israeli officials and news organizations continued to refer to “the Schabas commission” and “the Schabas report.” Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said on Monday that Israel had taken that approach because “we believe that by calling it the Schabas report it positions it the way we want it to be positioned,” and “this reflects the spirit of the whole commission and the mandate.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials both released statements saying they were still reviewing the findings. But while Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said his government would do so “in line with its staunch commitment to ensuring respect for these esteemed bodies of international law,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the report was “morally flawed from the outset,” and commissioned “by a notoriously biased institution.”

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s far-right education minister, went further, calling it “a report with blood on its hands,” and Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist former foreign minister, said “the picture will always be one-sided” and “parts of the facts there are simply not true.”

Hamas welcomed the report in a statement, but ignored the commission’s criticism of its own actions. “This clear condemnation” of Israel “requires that its leaders be taken to international war crimes courts, and all international courts, for the crimes they have committed against our people,” it said. “We confirm the necessity of putting a stop to this occupation and to halt its aggression and the continuing Zionist blockade on our people and our land, particularly in Gaza.”

An executive summary said the 217-page report was based on 280 interviews with victims and witnesses, many conducted by videoconference, and on 500 written submissions, along with publicly available information, including data from Israeli government websites.

Neither Israel nor Hamas responded to written questions about specific incidents, though the report said that the “commission received full cooperation of the state of Palestine.”

The inquiry focused on what the report called “new patterns,” referring to Israeli attacks on homes in Gaza “resulting in the death of entire families”; Israeli ground operations that “leveled urban neighborhoods,” including the use of the “Hannibal directive” when a soldier was believed to have been captured; and Palestinian militants’ “reliance on attack tunnels” into Israeli territory.

Regarding the airstrikes on homes, which several rights organizations also examined closely, the United Nations commission investigated 15 cases that killed 216 people, including 115 children and 50 women.

The report said “precision-guided weapons were used in all cases,” but added “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.”

“There are strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime,” the commission wrote. The investigators questioned the effectiveness of Israeli warning mechanisms, including the “knock on the roof,” in which a lighter missile is fired before a heavier bomb.

“The weapons used, the timing of the attacks, and the fact that the targets were located in densely populated areas indicate that the Israel Defense Forces may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties,” the panel said.

The report found that Israel had used artillery and other “explosive weapons” in residential neighborhoods including Shejaiya, Khuza’a and Rafah. Those attacks “may amount to a war crime” by violating rules of “distinction, precaution and proportionality,” the report said. Attacks on medical facilities and schools serving as shelters for thousands of displaced Gazans, it said, probably violated “the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks,” which would constitute another war crime.

When Israeli commanders believed soldiers might have been taken by Palestinian forces in Shejaiya on July 13 and in Rafah on Aug. 1, the commission “has the distinct impression” that they “disregarded basic principles on the conduct of hostilities;” in Rafah, the executive summary said, “every moving vehicle or person became a potential target.”

Along with more than 6,000 Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, the report counted 4,881 rockets and 1,753 shot by Palestinians toward Israel between July 7 and Aug. 26. The commission said it had been unable to verify Israeli allegations regarding the use of civilian buildings by Palestinian militants, in part because it was unable to visit Gaza, but said they “also put Gazans in danger” by firing “from densely populated areas.”

“In cases where their goal may have been to use the presence of civilians to protect military assets from attack, this would constitute a violation of the customary law prohibition against the use of human shields,” the report says. “The questionable conduct of these armed groups, however, does not modify Israel’s own obligations to abide by international law.”

Throughout, the commission referred mainly to “Palestinian armed groups” generally, rather than Hamas, by far the dominant organization. It did cite Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, as having claimed responsibility for the summary killing of 21 alleged collaborators with Israel, an act which the commission definitively called a war crime.

The commission’s report is the latest and arguably most damaging study by the United Nations into Israel’s conduct during the Gaza conflict. In April, a separate United Nations board of inquiry, appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, found that Israeli actions had led to the deaths of 44 civilians taking shelter inside United Nations schools.

That inquiry criticized the Israelis for attacking “inviolable” United Nations facilities in Gaza, although it did not render an opinion on whether international law had been broken. The report also blamed Hamas for storing weapons in some United Nations facilities that had been evacuated.

In mid-June, Israeli attacks were extensively cited in an annual report on violations of children’s rights. But after intense lobbying by Israel and by the United States — Mr. Netanyahu personally called Mr. Ban — Israelwas kept off a list of countries and armed groups that are said to systematically kill and maim children in war.

The report raised what it called “serious concern over the observance of the rules of international humanitarian law concerning the conduct of hostilities.”


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