UN Commission Finds Evidence of War Crimes by Israel, Hamas During 2014 Gaza War

Commission chair urges international community to act on conclusions of the report - primarily by supporting an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in to the status of the occupied Palestinian territories.

At the UNRWA-operated Abu Haseen school in northern Gaza, July 30, 2014.AFP

An independent United Nations commission of inquiry on Monday released its report on Operation Protective Edge, finding evidence that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the war in the Gaza Strip last summer and calling the devastation caused in the Palestinian territory "unprecedented."

The members of the commission, which was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, hinted in their report that the upper levels of the Israeli political echelon were responsible for the policies that led to some of these war crimes.

“The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come” said the commission’s American chairwoman, Justice Mary McGowan Davis. “There is also on-going fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat.”

The chairwoman of the commission urged the international community to act on the conclusions of the report - primarily by supporting an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in to the status of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israeli officials slammed the report, calling it "biased" and stained with "blood on its hand for allowing the murder of Jews." 

More on the UN's Gaza reports from Haaretz: Israeli top brass plays Gaza war crimes blame game | UN human rights chief: Israel may be committing war crimes in Gaza | UN report: Israel responsible for hits on 7 Gaza facilities during war

The commission determined that 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed by IDF fire during the hostilities, a third of who were children. In contrast, Hamas fired more than 4,800 rockets and over 1,700 mortar shells, which killed 6 civilians and injured 1,600 others.

The report noted that hundreds of Palestinian civilians, particularly women and children, were killed in their own homes during airstrikes. 142 families lost 3 or more members in such airstrikes on residential buildings, which killed 742 civilians, according to the commission.

“The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of airstrikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises the question of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government," the commission found, according press release accompanying the publication of the report.

The commission expressed concern about Israel’s “extensive use of weapons with a wide kill and injury radius. Though not illegal, their use in densely populated areas is highly likely to kill combatants and civilians indiscriminately.

The commission referred to warnings given by the IDF to residents of Gaza neighborhoods before airstrikes were launched, and stated that after such warnings Israel deemed everyone remaining in the area as someone involved in the fighting. This policy led to an increased likelihood of harming civilians.

The commission further determined that during the IDF’s ground operations in Gaza hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed, noting in particular the high number of casualties in the neighborhood pf Shujaiyeh and during the ‘Black Friday’ operation in Rafah, after an Israeli soldier was thought to have been abducted. Justice Davis harshly criticized the IDF’s conduct, stating that “when the safety of an Israeli soldier is at stake, all the rules seem to be disregarded.”

The report states that the fighting in Gaza caused deep anxiety and disrupted daily life in Israel. The commission determined that indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortar shells from Gaza was intended to sow terror among Israel’s citizens. It added that 14 tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel were uncovered, which were used to attack Israeli soldiers during hostilities. The existence of these tunnels was traumatic for Israeli civilians, who were afraid that they might be attacked at any moment by armed men storming their communities.

The commission also related to the situation in the West Bank between June and August of 2014, following the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in Gush Etzion. The report determined that the number of Palestinians killed in those three months exceeded the number of deaths for all of 2013. The commission expressed concern over the apparent increase in the use of live ammunition by Israel’s security forces during the dispersal of Palestinian demonstrations. 

The commission stressed that violations of international law by IDF soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza go unpunished. “Israel must break with its lamentable track record in holding wrong doers accountable” said the commissioners. “Accountability on the Palestinian side is also woefully inadequate.”

The commission referred to IDF investigations of aberrant incidents during the Gaza fighting as well as to decisions by the Military Advocate General in this matter. It expressed concern over the decision to close the criminal investigation of the killing of four Palestinian children on Gaza’s beach on July 16, 2014. The commission claims that many witnesses were not interviewed by Israeli investigators, which raises questions as to the thoroughness of the investigation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last Sunday that reading the report would be a "waste of time."

The UNHRC is a "hostile body, not objective regarding Israel… which has made more resolutions against Israel than against Syria, Iran and North Korea combined," Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last week.

Israel, for its part, compiled its own report, which according to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit describes the war crimes committed by Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations, the threats of terror against Israel from Gaza, the steps Israel had taken to act within accordance of international law and to avoid harming citizens, as well as the investigations and examinations ongoing in Israel since the end of the war.

"Israel is now faced with an unprecedented attack of delegitimization," Netanyahu said after receiving the Israeli report. "This is a baseless and political attack aimed at sullying Israel. We will respond to this attack. This is the report that will portray the true picture of what happened in the operation and will prove that the actions taken by the IDF were done in accordance with international law and out of necessity to protect our citizens from the murderous terror organizations who committed double war crimes – shooting at citizens while hiding behind citizens."
"Israel is committed to international law not because of UN commissions of inquiry but because it is a democratic state," Netanyahu added. "We are not afraid to check ourselves when necessary. Israel's mechanism of investigation and examinations are the leading in the world. When there are credible claims, they are checked."

The former head of the inquiry, Canadian academic William Schabas, resigned from the committee amid Israeli allegations of bias due to consultancy work he did for the Palestine Liberation Organization. 

American jurist Mary McGowan-Davis was subsequently named to head the inquiry. McGowan-Davis, who was previously a member of the panel, is regarded as a lot more fair with regard to Israel.

McGowan-Davis was head of the UNHRC's committee that implemented the findings of the Goldstone fact-finding mission into Israel's Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009. Israel cooperated with her at the time and provided her with substantial documentation regarding Israel's own inquiries into the operation.