U.N. report found both Israel's military and Palestinian armed groups broke the law
Israel says U.N. Commission of Inquiry was biased against it from the start
Palestinian leaders say the report backs their position that Israel has committed war crimes
Neither side came out well from the long-awaited U.N. report into last summer’s 50-day Gaza war.
But while Israel blasted the U.N. Human Rights Council’s report, calling it “biased” from its outset, the Palestinian leadership welcomed its findings, saying they would help “in ending the Israeli occupation.”
The report, which took nine months to complete, concludes that both Israel and “Palestinian armed groups,” including Hamas, violated international law and may have committed war crimes during the fighting that claimed more than 2,100 Palestinian lives and 73 Israeli lives.
The mixed response to the report from the independent commission – with which Israel declined to cooperate – is perhaps not surprising.
“This is the committee that denounced Israel more than it denounces Iran, Syria and North Korea together,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “It appointed as its chairman a person who is an agitator and hater of the state of Israel and also received money from the Palestinians.”
The commission’s initial chairman, William Schabas, resigned from his position after it surfaced he had done work for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the past. His resignation and the ensuing transfer of leadership to Mary McGowan Davis delayed the release of the report from March to June.
The Jerusalem Post newspaper ran a piece Tuesday from an Israeli soldier who served in Gaza last year. He says that Hamas took advantage of the Israel Defense Forces’ moral and humanitarian considerations – and that this led to the deaths of five soldiers in one operation in which he took part.
“In spite of the claims made against the IDF that they have gone against international law, in this instance it is understood that our morality cost us our lives,” he said.
Despite the report’s criticism of the actions of Palestinian armed groups and the Palestinian Authority’s failure to investigate alleged wrongdoing adequately, the Palestinian leadership praised the findings of the report.
“The state of Palestine will review the findings and recommendations of the commission with the highest consideration, in line with its staunch commitment to ensuring respect for these esteemed bodies of international law,” said PLO Executive Committee member and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
“As we begin to do so, we urge the international community to recall that the only true path to peace lies in ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967, and in ending crime and the impunity with which it continues to be perpetrated against our people.”
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that, in at least six cases, Israel used precision-guided munitions in airstrikes against residential buildings without any military objective. In the ground war, the report said that Israel used high-explosive munitions in densely populated urban environments, such as Shujai’iya, which risk civilian lives.
Israel conducted more than 6,000 airstrikes on Gaza and used more than 5,000 tons of munitions in the ground offensive, including 14,500 tank shells and about 35,000 artillery shells, according to the report.
“Depending on the circumstances, indiscriminate attacks may qualify as a direct attack against civilians, and may there amount to war crimes,” investigators wrote.
Israel also warned civilians to leave residential buildings and homes before they were destroyed, according to the report, a method that was effective in reducing civilian casualties, but investigators found that Israel did not do enough to protect lives.
“Merely issuing a warning does not absolve the Israel Defense Forces of their obligations to protect civilian life,” the report said.
The investigators also condemned Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, saying they fired more than 6,500 rockets and mortars toward Israel while calling for more attacks on civilians and population centers in Israel.
In addition, the tunnels that stretched from Gaza into Israel were designed “to spread terror among the civilian population,” the report said. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and European Union.
“The use of rockets in the possession of Palestinian armed groups, indiscriminate in nature, and any targeted mortar attacks against civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law, in particular the fundamental principle of distinction, which may amount to a war crime.”
The commission also condemned the Palestinian Authority for “woefully inadequate” investigations “despite allegations of violations of international humanitarian law on the part of Palestinian actors.”
Israel ‘respects its obligations’
Israel released its own report about the Gaza war a week before the U.N. report.
In the report, Israel found that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups drew the fighting into urban centers to increase the chance of civilian casualties.
“Yet no matter the context in which Israel conducts its military operations, the IDF respects its obligations under international law, including the Law of Armed Conflict,” it said.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry encouraged all sides involved in the Gaza war to cooperate with the ongoing preliminary examination from the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinians are scheduled to hand over their evidence to the ICC later this week, while Israel has so far refused to cooperate with the ICC.
‘Massive civilian casualties’
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a leading figure in Palestinian civil society who is a member of the PLO’s Central Council and a founder of the Palestinian National Initiative, an independent political party, said he hoped the U.N. report would feed into the ICC inquiry.
“Although the report does not cover the full scale of Israeli violations, it does provide definite proof that the Israeli army and government committed war crimes that should be immediately investigated by the International Criminal Court,” he said.
Diana Buttu, a Ramallah, West Bank-based analyst and former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others, said the report “confirms what Palestinians stated during Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer: that Israel committed serious war crimes that resulted in massive civilian casualties.”
“This is not the first time that a U.N. body has made such determinations, and unless the U.N. acts swiftly to hold Israeli officials accountable for their actions, it will not be the last.”
For George Bisharat, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and former legal consultant to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the commission’s findings that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups likely committed war crimes “merely confirms the obvious.”
But he said the findings could increase the chances of successful legal action in the future.
“While the commission’s report is of no immediate legal effect, it may, nonetheless, pave the way for later investigations and potentially prosecutions of Israeli and Palestinian military personnel by the International Criminal Court by providing the ICC needed political cover,” he said.
“The fact that the commission was headed by Mary McGowan Davis, an esteemed American jurist, makes its impact all the greater, especially in the United States, where findings by U.N. bodies are regularly derided.”
CNN’s Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.