A United Nations report on the 2014 conflict in Gaza has found substantial evidence pointing to the possible commission of war crimes by Israel and also Palestinian armed groups. The UN Independent Commission of Enquiry was investigating the 2014 escalation of violence in Gaza that saw heavy civilian casualties and injuries, mostly on the Palestinian side. The Commission consisted of Justice Mary McGowan Davis of the United States as Chair and Dr. Doudou Diene from Senegal.
During the 51-day operation last year, Israel bombarded the Gaza strip with over 6,000 airstrikes. Approximately 50,000 tank and artillery shells were also fired, killing 1,462 Palestinian civilians, a third of whom were children. For their part, Palestinian armed groups indiscriminately fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars towards Israel, killing six civilians and injuring more than 1,600.
The commission found evidence of possible war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict.
“The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come,” a UN press release quoted the commission chair Davis as saying, adding that, “there is also on-going fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat”. While the report was critical of both sides, it especially focused on the use of immense firepower by the Israeli forces during the conflict.
The report made recommendations for Israel, Palestine, the Palestinian armed groups and the international community in general. It pulled up Israel for its apparent insensitivity towards the loss of human life, saying that the fact that air strikes did not stop even after reports of heavy civilian casualties came in indicated that such a policy had been approved “at least tacitly at the highest level of government.”
Civilian insecurities about next strike
“The commission is concerned that impunity prevails across the board for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces, whether it be in the context of active hostilities in Gaza or killings, torture and ill-treatment in the West Bank,” the report said as one of its conclusions, adding, “Israel must break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable, not only as a means to secure justice for victims but also to ensure the necessary guarantees for non-repetition.”
It also questioned the timing pattern and even intent of the attacks, noting that “In many incidents, however, the weapons used, the timing of attacks, and the fact that the targets were located in densely populated areas indicate that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties.”
With respect to Palestine, the report said that the armed groups in Palestine do not have adequate accountability mechanisms, which has led to a situation where rockets are indiscriminately fired into Israel, aimed at Israeli civilians who live in fear of the next rocket or attack. The possible use of tunnels by armed groups to enter Israel has created additional fear among civilians in Israel. The report also questioned the inability of the Palestinian state to bring to justice the perpetrators of international war crimes.
“The increased level of fear among Israeli civilians resulting from the use of tunnels was palpable. The commission also condemns the extrajudicial executions of alleged “collaborators”, which amount to a war crime,” it noted.
Allegations of bias
The report has been derided by Jewish and Israeli groups for being biased and for wrongly treating the IDF and Hamas, the most powerful Palestinian armed group, in the same light. The Guardian reported a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry calling the report politically motivated and morally flawed, while Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was committing no war crimes, and was only defending itself against a terrorist organisation.
However, the commission noted in the report that Israel had been uncooperative during the investigation, not releasing information it was bound to release under international law, and disallowing members of the commission entry into Israel. Previously, pressure from Israel had forced the resignation of the commission’s first chairman, William Schabas, after it emerged that he had once done legal work for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The commission has made several recommendations, asking both Israel and Palestine to pull up their socks with respect to human rights and the commission of war crimes. It has also suggested that Israel accede to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by signing the Rome Statute. The report has called upon the international community to “use its influence to prevent and end violations, and to refrain from encouraging violations by other parties,” and has suggested that the UN Human Rights Council conduct a comprehensive review of the implementation of the recommendations made by the commission.
Israel in ICC dock
Seeking to end Israeli impunity in the face of war crimes, the report also called for the international community to “support actively the work of the ICC in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territory; to exercise universal jurisdiction to try international crimes in national courts; and to comply with extradition requests pertaining to suspects of such crimes to countries where they would face a fair trial.”
While its contents are contested, the commission’s report will turn the spotlight back to the preliminary investigation of the 2014 conflict by the ICC following Palestine’s ratification of the Rome Statute.
The report increases the likelihood of the ICC probe being converted to a full investigation by the court’s prosecutor. However, while AFP reported a PLO official as saying that the report reinforces their will to go to the ICC, Palestine itself has not referred the 2014 war to the court, leaving questions regarding its leader’s commitment to a full investigation, as such an investigation would also inspect Palestinian violation of international criminal law. Nevertheless, Palestinian Foreign Ministry Official Ammar Hijazi has said the Palestinian Authority will hand over its file on the Gaza war to the ICC prosecutor on June 25, with a detailed account of the violations of international law, Al Jazeera reported.
Aware of the problems with the ICC investigation, the commission has also called for countries with universal jurisdiction to try war criminals in their national courts. This was done previously in the case of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet who was detained in London in 1998 on a request from Spain. The report provides countries with the jurisdictional ammunition to try Israeli and war criminals in national courts.
The report, which will be presented before the UN Human Rights Council on the 29th of June.