UN panel faults Israel, Hamas for possible war crimes in Gaza

Israel fought a bloody war last summer with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. The UN Human Rights Commission appointed a panel to investigate the conflict's conduct. 

Hatem Moussa/AP/File
In this July 29, 2014 file photo, smoke and fire from an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City.

A United Nations inquiry into last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip faults both Israel and Hamas for violating laws on international warfare, saying their actions “may amount to war crimes” and that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should continue to investigate such allegations.

The report issued Monday by the UN’s Human Rights Commission covered 183 pages. It criticized the Israeli military for razing neighborhoods in Gaza with disproportionate fire; targeting civilian homes in strikes that led to multiple deaths; and not taking enough care to avoid civilian casualties after warnings of hostilities had been issued.

The panel accused Hamas of firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately into Israeli population centers; faulted Gaza militants for operating close to civilian areas; expressed concern that authorities in Gaza explicitly discouraged residents from heeding the evacuation warnings of the Israeli military; and said that militants committed war crimes by committing extra-judicial killings of 21 alleged collaborators.

The 50-day war left at least 2,125 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead; the two sides dispute the ratio of militant to civilian Palestinian deaths. Most of the Israeli dead were IDF soldiers. Thousands more were wounded, and many neighborhoods in Gaza are still in ruins. 

At a press conference in Geneva, the UN panel’s chief investigators, Mary McGowan and Doudou Diene, lamented the “heart rending stories” and the “unprecedented civilian casualties” from the war.

The ICC is also conducting its own preliminary investigation into accusations of war crimes in the war and in the situation in the Palestinian territories in general. The ICC admitted Palestine as a member state this year, allowing Palestinians to submit lawsuits. 

Though Israel fears such a possibility, analysts said it was not clear if the Gaza inquiry released Monday would lead to a war crimes case, because the commission was unable to perform an on-the-ground investigation. The Gaza report said the ICC should continue to investigate war crimes allegations, but stopped short of making explicit legal recommendations. 

“I don’t think this report in and of itself will have much of an effect. It will be one of many documents that the ICC prosecutor will review when they decide whether to open an investigation,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst at the independent International Crisis Group.

Claims of bias from Israel

Israeli officials, who boycotted the panel, were quick to lambaste the inquiry, calling the panel inherently biased with a political agenda from a UN body that disproportionately scrutinizes the Jewish state. As evidence, officials noted that the panel's original chairman was William Schabas, a Canadian law expert who had advised the Palestine Liberation Organization. He resigned in February. 

“Israel does not commit war crimes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to lawmakers in the Israeli parliament. “Israel is defending itself from a terror organization that calls for its destruction.… Any country that values life would act the same, unless the panel expects a country whose citizens are threatened by thousands of rockets to sit with its arms folded.”

Despite the panel’s criticism of Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamic militant group, posted on his Facebook page that Hamas welcomed the report for accusing Israel of wrongdoing. “This means that Israeli leaders must be sued in the international court of justice, now,” he wrote.

Saeb Erekat, the former chief negotiator of the Palestinians, said only that the Palestinian government would review the findings and praising the panel for the investigation.

The report also complained about the fear stirred among Israeli civilians by the cross-border tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel. Israel described the tunnels as a “strategic threat” and a causus belli in its decision to order a ground invasion.

Despite Israeli arguments that its military conducts its own inquiries into the allegations of war crimes, the panel said that a more independent review of the actions was necessary.

Many in Israel see the inquiries as part of a broader attempt by pro-Palestinian activists to delegitimize the Jewish state and encourage a boycott of the country. A Human Rights Commission report headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone after the 2008-2009 Gaza war was criticized for bias in its passing judgment on Israel.

David Benjamin, a former IDF officer responsible for adherence to international law, said the current report was more careful. However, Israeli politicians seemed united in condemnation.

“It’s born in sin,” said Tzippi Livni, from the opposition Zionist Union party. “We won’t accept any comparison between terrorists and the soldiers of IDF.  We won’t allow foreign judges to come in and judge Israeli soldiers.”

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