In a highly anticipated report, United Nations investigators said on Monday that war crimes may have been committed by Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza during the 2014 conflict.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigation found “serious violations” by both sides during the 50-day offensive.
“The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come,” Justice Mary McGowan Davis, the chairwoman of the U.N. commission of inquiry, said.
Israel said the offensive in Gaza was launched in order for it to stop rocket fire from Gaza and to destroy tunnels used by militants under the border
The 183-page report said that the scale of devastation in Gaza was “unprecedented” and found that a total of 2,251 were killed on the Palestinian side, 1,462 civilians of whom were civilians, including 551 children. It said 18,000 housing units were destroyed.
It also noted that 67 soldiers were killed on the Israeli side, as well as six civilians.
The report stated that in Gaza, 142 families lost 3 or more members during Israeli airstrikes in the same incident on residential buildings, which the commission said killed 742 civilians.
“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 said.
It found in several incidents that Israel “may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties.”
The inquiry also expressed concern about Israel’s “extensive use of weapons with a wide kill and injury radius,” saying the use of such weapons in densely populated areas was “highly likely to kill combatants and civilians indiscriminately.”
“There appears also to be a pattern whereby the IDF issued warnings to people to leave a neighbourhood and then automatically considered anyone remaining to be a fighter. This practice makes attacks on civilians highly likely,” it said.
The report stated that 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortar shells were fired by Palestinian armed groups towards Israel during the conflict.
The reported noted “the inherently indiscriminate nature of most of the projectiles launched into Israel and the targeting of civilians, which violate international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime.”
The commission also condemned the executions of 21 alleged Palestinian “collaborators” with Israel by militants in Gaza, which it said may constitute a war crime.
The report also criticized Israel for its continued blockade of the Gaza Strip. “The blockade and the military operation have led to a protection crisis and chronic, widespread and systematic violations of human rights,” it said.
Israel refused to cooperate with the inquiry and repeatedly referred to its mandate as biased. It refused to allow investigators access to either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip to conduct its investigation. Despite the lack of access, the commission was able to conduct more than 280 interviews and 500 written submissions during its 11-month probe. Hamas, the Islamist group governing Gaza, also refused to cooperate with the commission.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply criticized the report after its release. “Israel does not commit war crimes. Israel defends itself against a terrorist organization that calls for its destruction and carries out many war crimes,” he said.
“The committee that wrote this report was appointed by a committee that calls itself the Human Rights Council but in practice it does all but take care of human rights. It is a committee that condemns Israel more than it condemns Iran, Syria, and North Korea combined,” Netanyahu said.
Israel pre-emptively released its own report on the Gaza offensive last week, saying its troops adhered to international law and said Palestinian militants were to blame for most of the civilian casualties.
The United Nations report did recognize the hardships and anxieties faced by Israelis during the conclift. “The hostilities also caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of civilians in Israel,” it said.
In presenting its findings at a press conference in Geneva, the commissioners said they were “deeply moved by the immense suffering and resilience of the victims,” adding that they hope their report “contributes in some small way to ending the cycle of violence.”
The UNHRC report is due to be discussed by the Human Rights Council on June 29.