An inquiry by a commission of the U.N. Human Rights Council into last summer’s Gaza conflict and an Israeli report issued last week on the same topic offer vastly divergent interpretations on the use of overwhelming Israeli firepower against militants from Hamas and other groups in a crowded civilian setting.
The Israeli report absolved the country’s military forces of violations, saying what happened is the consequence of fighting against a group that had taken up positions in crowded urban settings.
The United Nations report, which was issued Monday, asserted, however, that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups may have committed war crimes and that Israeli officials had brought no one to account.
A total of 2,251 Palestinians were killed in the war, according to the U.N., 1,462 of them civilians, including 229 women and 551 children. Six Israeli civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers were killed in Palestinian rocket and mortar strikes.
Israel did not cooperate with the U.N. commission, saying its mandate was skewed. The council is a “notoriously biased institution” that has consistently singled out Israel for condemnation and the panel’s mandate “presumed Israel guilty from the start,” a Foreign Ministry statement said after the report was released.
The panel’s findings are likely to provide a basis for an examination underway by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to determine whether there are grounds for a full-scale war crimes investigation.
Israel’s own report on the conflict asserted that its forces adhered to the laws of war, facing an adversary that used residential buildings and neighborhoods as command centers and rocket-launching sites, putting civilians at risk.
According to the Israeli account, Israeli forces targeted military objectives, and “what may have appeared to external parties to be indiscriminate harm to civilians or purely civilian objects was in fact legitimate attacks against military targets that merely appear civilian.”
The army warned civilians to evacuate before it attacked and aborted strikes when it appeared that harm to civilians was excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage, the Israeli report said.
The U.N. panel, headed by Mary McGowan Davis, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, said it had gathered “substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups.” It said “in some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.”
Israel launched more 6,000 airstrikes and about 50,000 tank and artillery shells in its assault on the densely populated Gaza Strip, according to the U.N. report. It said that at least 142 families lost three or more members in attacks on residential buildings, and that 18,000 dwellings were totally or partially destroyed.
The inquiry found that artillery and other heavy weapons with wide-area impact were “widely used in residential neighborhoods, resulting in a large number of casualties and extensive destruction.”
In two cases in which soldiers were killed or feared captured, Israeli forces used “massive firepower in Rafah and Shuj’aiya, in utter disregard of its devastating impact on the civilian population,” the report said. “In Rafah, every moving vehicle or person became a potential target.”
“While force protection is a legitimate objective, the commission has the distinct impression that when soldiers’ lives were at stake or there was a risk of capture, the Israel Defense Forces disregarded basic principles on the conduct of hostilities,” the U.N. report said.
“The fact that the political and military leadership did not change its course of action despite considerable information regarding the massive degree of death and destruction in Gaza, raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law by these officials, which may amount to war crimes,” the report said.
After giving warnings to evacuate neighborhoods under attack, the military often considered anyone remaining behind a combatant, though many Palestinians did not leave because they were unable to identify a safe place to go, the report said.
“Inferring that anyone remaining in an area that has been the object of a warning is an enemy . . . or issuing instructions to this effect, contributes to creating an environment conducive to attacks on civilians,” the panel said.
“Impunity prevails across the board for violations” committed by Israeli forces, and “Israel must break with its lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable,” the report added.
The panel asserted that Palestinian authorities had failed to bring to justice militants whose “inherently indiscriminate” rocket firings and targeting of Israeli civilians “violate international law and may amount to a war crime.” Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars toward Israel during the conflict, according to the report.
Militants in Gaza also executed 21 alleged Palestinian informers for Israel during the war, killings that amounted to war crimes, the panel said.
“Comprehensive and effective accountability mechanisms for violations allegedly committed by Israeli or Palestinian actors,” the report concluded, “will be a key deciding factor of whether Palestinans and Israelis are to be spared yet another round of hostilities and spikes in violations of international law in the future.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.
Gaza war, by the numbers
1,462 – Palestinian civilian dead
6 – Israeli civilian dead
50,000 – Israeli tank and artillery shells fired (approximate)
6,000 – Israeli airstrikes on Gaza (approximate)
4,881 – rockets fired into Israel from Gaza
1,753 – mortar rounds fired into Israel from Gaza
142 – number of Gaza families that lost three or more members
Source: United Nations