UN Rights Chief Says Israeli Strikes on Gaza May Be War Crimes

Michelle Bachelet says she had seen no evidence that civilian buildings in Gaza hit by Israeli strikes were being used by for military purposes

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People stand in a clearing strewn with debris from an Israeli airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, yesterday.
People stand in a clearing strewn with debris from an Israeli airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, yesterday.Credit: John Minchillo,AP

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday that Israel's deadly strikes on Gaza may constitute war crimes, and that the Hamas Islamist group had also violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Bachelet said her office had verified the deaths of 270 Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 68 children, during violence this month. Most were killed in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where Israel fought militants for 11 days, ending in a cease-fire.

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Hamas rockets had killed 10 Israelis and residents.

She was addressing a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, held at the request of Muslim states who have asked the forum to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate possible crimes and establish command responsibility.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2020.Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/ REUTERS

The conflict erupted after Hamas demanded Israeli forces leave the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem and later launched rockets towards Israel. The "indiscriminate" rocket strikes constitute "a clear violation of international humanitarian law", Bachelet said.

Israel responded with intense air strikes in Gaza, including shelling, missiles and attacks from the sea, causing widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and death, she said.

"Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard," she added.

"If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate, such attacks might constitute war crimes," Bachelet told the 47-member forum. She also urged Hamas to refrain from firing indiscriminate rockets on Israel.

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, denounced Hamas as a "jihadist, genocidal, terrorist organization" and accused it of using Palestinian civilians as human shields to conceal its rockets.

Referring to the 4,400 rockets fired into Israel – most of which were intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" defense shield - she added: "Each one of these rockets constitutes a war crime."

Riyad al-Maliki, foreign minister of Palestine, said: "Israel, the occupation and apartheid authority continues its crimes, its policies and laws to consolidate a colonial and apartheid system."

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described Gaza as "hell on earth" for children, appealing to Israel for rapid and unhindered aid access and telling the 193-member General Assembly he would launch an appeal for humanitarian funding.

Diplomatic efforts toward a cease-fire in the Gaza war gathered pace on Thursday amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory, but fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas continued.

"If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza today," said Guterres, adding that he would launch a full humanitarian appeal for funding as soon as possible.

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.

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