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'Unprecedented Devastation': Both Sides May Be Guilty of War Crimes During Gaza Conflict

The long-awaited results of a year-long inquiry found that both Israel and Hamas violated international law during last summer's bloody war in Gaza — a conclusion that each side rejects.
June 22, 2015, 4:05pm
Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A United Nations report on last summer's bloody war between Israel and Hamas has found both sides committed grave abuses of international humanitarian law that may constitute war crimes during the 51 days of fighting.

"The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come," the chair of the commission, Justice Mary McGowan Davis told a press briefing Monday afternoon. "There is also ongoing fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat," she added.


An independent commission working for the UN Human Rights Council spent a year looking at the actions of both sides during the conflict, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, mainly civilians, and 73 Israelis, mainly soldiers. Its 217-page report, which details multiple incidents of potential violations of international human rights law and rules of war, has attracted criticism from both sides.

Responding to the findings released in Geneva on Monday afternoon, Israel reiterated allegations that the commission was inherently biased against it, while Hamas claimed it had only fired rockets at military targets and the UN's investigators had tried to create a false balance between victims and killers.

Among the allegations leveled at Israel by the UN are that airstrikes by its military on residential buildings were made at nighttime and during Ramadan mealtimes — increasing the likelihood of entire families being gathered at home.

"With regard to proportionality… a reasonable commander would have been aware that these attacks would be likely to result in a large number of civilian casualties" the report says. "There are strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime."

Watch the VICE News documentary Fallout in Gaza: Six Months On

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The inquiry also charges that Israel failed to modify its military strategy in Gaza during the near seven-week long war despite having "considerable information regarding the massive degree of death and destruction" in the strip.

In addition it notes that Israel's advance warnings to civilians to evacuate an area ahead of impending attacks by using a so-called "roof knock" -- a small missile strike normally just minutes ahead of the real attack — did not always give sufficient time for evacuation, in one case leading to 19 people in a household of 22 being killed.

On the other side, the commission found that rocket and mortar fire by Palestinian militant groups into Israel was "inherently indiscriminate" and that increased use of tunnels by Hamas fighters created "palpable" fear among civilians, particularly those living in close proximity to the border.

The report also documented allegations that Palestinian armed groups had conducted military operations, including firing rockets and mortars, in densely populated neighborhoods and near civilian targets. However, the commission said it was unable to fully investigate the issue due to Israel restricting invesigators' access to Gaza and the fact that Palestinian witnesses were too scared of reprisals to give testimony.

The report also condemned the extrajudicial killing of Palestinian individuals accused of "collaborating" with Israel during the war and criticized the Palestinian authorities for being "woefully inadequate" in bringing law violators to bear.


Related: Hamas Killed and Tortured Palestinians in Gaza Conflict, Report Claims

The inquiry also noted what it called a "huge" increase in firepower during this particular conflict, the third in six years between Israel and Hamas

According to the report the Israel Defense Forces launched a total of 6,000 airstrikes on the Gaza strip and fired more than 50,000 tank and artillery shells. Palestinian militant groups launched 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars.

The commission raised particular concern over Israel's extensive use of weapons with a wide kill and injury radius, which although not illegal when used in a densely populated area are "highly likely to kill civilians and combatants indiscriminately."

On both sides the border the report found that children were "savagely affected" by the near seven-week long conflict, with trauma manifesting in "bed-wetting, shaking at night, clinging to parents and increased levels of aggressiveness."

In Israel the report attract criticism across the political spectrum.

At Monday's meeting of the center-left Zionist Union party MP Tzipi Livni slammed the report as "being born in sin [and] written by a commission that deliberately and systematically attack Israel." Meanwhile Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, also the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, accused the UN investigators of having "blood on its hands for allowing the murder of Jews."


In anticipation of the report's critical conclusions, Israel last week released the findings of its own investigation into the war detailing the steps taken by the military to avoid civilian casualties and accusing Hamas fighters of hiding behind civilian targets including schools and mosques.

Related: Netanyahu Calls UN Investigation of Alleged Gaza War Crimes a 'Waste of Time'

"[The UNHCR report] fails to recognize the profound difference between Israel's moral behaviour during Operation Protective Edge and the terror organizations it confronted," said Emmanual Nahshon, the spokesperson for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For its part, Hamas told the Associated Press the report created a false balance "between the victims and the killers." Meanwhile the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Dr. Saeb Erekat released a statement saying the state of Palestine would investigate all the UN allegations of wrongdoing, "in line with its staunch commitment to ensuring respect for these esteemed bodies of international law."

Last week Israel announced an internal inquiry into the killing of four children playing soccer on a Gaza city beach had concluded that the deaths were a "tragic accident."

So far neither side has accepted responsibility for any wrongdoing during the war.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem