A United Nations Commission of Inquiry on last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip — taking pains to be evenhanded — found that both Israel and Palestinian militants were responsible for violations of international law that could amount to war crimes. But each side interpreted the commission’s long-awaited report according to its own version of the Middle East conflict.
In the 217-page report, submitted on Monday to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the two commissioners said the militants clearly wanted to sow terror among Israeli civilians, just as they said they could not find clear evidence of why Israel targeted residential buildings in Gaza late at night, risking mass civilian casualties.
The Commission of Inquiry’s chairwoman, the American jurist Mary McGowan Davis, said at a Geneva news conference that the investigation had gathered testimony “in a scrupulously objective fashion.”
Still, each side in the long-running conflict saw what it wanted in any such report: Israelis condemned it as further evidence of bias against them in the United Nations writ large, while Palestinians embraced it as further ballast in their bid to punish Israelis in the International Criminal Court — and the court of international public opinion.
The report, written by Ms. McGowan Davis and Doudou Diene, a lawyer from Senegal, said that “impunity prevails across the board” regarding the actions of Israeli forces in Gaza, and it called on Israel to “break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable.”
As for Palestinian armed groups, the panel cited the “inherently indiscriminate nature” of rockets and mortars fired at Israeli civilians, condemned the killing of people suspected of being collaborators, and said the Palestinian authorities had “consistently failed” to bring violators of international law to justice.
Despite the February resignation of the inquiry’s original leader, William Schabas, after Israel complained of his having advised the Palestine Liberation Organization, some Israeli leaders and news organizations continued to refer to it as “the Schabas report” for effect. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the document “flawed and biased” and said the Human Rights Council “has a singular obsession with Israel.” (In fact, it also has Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Syria and other countries on its agenda.)
The reaction to the report embodied Israel’s mounting attacks on the United Nations in recent months, with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, saying that “the U.N. has been taken hostage by terrorist organizations, and in this battle the international community will lose.”
U.N. Report on Possible War Crimes
▪ The report says 65 percent of 2,251 Palestinians killed were civilians, down from earlier United Nations estimates.
▪ Israel says it has documented militant activity by at least 44 percent of the dead.
▪ The report mainly refers to “Palestinian armed groups,” rather than Hamas, which controls Gaza and led the fight against Israel.
▪ Israel blocked investigators and declined to answer questions, as did Hamas; the Palestinian government cooperated.
▪ The report cites the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’s armed wing and Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods as possible war crimes.
Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, on the other hand, assessed the report as a “clear condemnation” of Israel that demonstrated why Israel should be held accountable for war crimes. It ignored or dismissed the report’s criticism of its own actions. And Saeb Erekat, a P.L.O. leader, praised what he called “these esteemed bodies of international law.”
The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented” in Gaza, tallying more than 6,000 airstrikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells unleashed between July 7 and Aug. 26. The hostilities also “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians,” it said, counting 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars fired by Palestinians during that period, and extensively discussing the tunnels militants used to infiltrate Israeli territory. Of the death toll of 2,252 Palestinians, the report said 65 percent were civilians; Israel says it has documented militant activity by at least 44 percent of the dead.
The report could serve as a road map for the preliminary examination already underway by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor. The Palestinians are expected to present their own files to the court regarding Israeli crimes on Thursday.
Israel — and Hamas — refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Israel barred panel members from entering both its territory and Gaza to conduct research.
The commission’s report is the latest and arguably most damning United Nations inquiry into the 2014 Gaza war. In April, a separate board of inquiry appointed by the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, found that Israeli military action had killed 44 civilians taking shelter inside United Nations schools, which it said should have been “inviolable.”
Monday’s report devoted more space to Israel’s actions, but used similar language to address violations by both sides, and made other efforts at evenhandedness, for instance recalling how three Israeli teenagers were “kidnapped and brutally murdered” and then how a Palestinian teenager was “viciously murdered by being burned alive.”
It cited the militants’ rocket attacks and tunnel infiltrations of Israeli territory first in its summary of findings. It noted that Palestinian groups issued statements saying they were trying to hit Israeli cities, and that their weapons lacked guidance systems to aim at military objectives. The panel concluded that those attacks were “indiscriminate in nature,” suggesting that their main goal “was to spread terror among the civilian population, in violation of international humanitarian law.”
Perhaps the harshest condemnation was for the August execution of 21 Gazans suspected of collaborating with Israel, which the report said definitively “amount to a war crime.”
As for the tunnels, the commission detailed the anxiety they caused Israelis but said it “cannot conclusively determine” why they were built and noted that during the summer they “were only used to conduct attacks directed at” Israeli military posts.
The panel sought to answer the question of whether Israel committed war crimes by painstakingly examining whether the killing of civilians was indiscriminate, whether attacks on military targets were proportional and whether it took sufficient care to prevent civilian casualties. On this, the report was particularly sharp.
Israeli forces frequently used precision-guided missiles, indicating that they were aimed at specific targets, the report said, but many of the attacks came when families were gathered to break the Ramadan fast or were asleep, increasing the likelihood of civilian deaths. In six cases that the panel looked into, they found little or no information to explain why residential buildings “which are prima facie civilian objects immune from attack, were considered to be legitimate military objectives.”
In another nine cases where militants were inside residential buildings, the panel said there were “strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime.”
Israel’s warnings to Gazans, including “roof-knocks” in which lighter missiles were fired before deadly bombs, “cannot be considered” effective, the report said, because they confused residents and did not give them enough time to evacuate.
Leaflets urging Gazans to leave their homes were also insufficient, the report found, because residents did not know which locations would be hit, and some 44 percent of the coastal enclave was off-limits. “These terrifying circumstances created a sense of entrapment, of having “no safe place” to go,” it added.
The Gaza Commission of Inquiry is hardly the first to compile a mountain of facts, only to be filed away or criticized as biased. A parallel one on Syria has issued eight separate reports on suspected war crimes there, even submitting a list of names of suspects, which is kept under seal by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
So why bother appointing these panels? Advocates point out that there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Dozens of Bosnian immigrants to the United States are facing deportation on suspicion that they were involved in “ethnic cleansing” and other war crimes 20 years ago during the Balkan wars.
The Gaza commission will be discussed by the Human Rights Council next Monday. That will be another occasion for the allies of both sides to use the report’s findings to renew the debate.