UN accuses Israel and Hamas of war crimes

An inquiry by a United Nations-backed commission has found that Israel and Palestinian groups have committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip, as it also accused Tel Aviv of “crimes against humanity”.

Twin reports on the actions of Israel and Palestinian groups, released on Wednesday by the independent Commission of Inquiry (COI), constitute the UN’s first in-depth investigation into the events since October 7. Both sides stand accused of indiscriminate killings and sexual violence.

The use of the term “crimes against humanity”, as in the report against Israel, is usually reserved for the most serious international crimes knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians.

The findings, based on interviews with victims and witnesses, submissions, satellite imagery, medical reports and verified open-source information, were swiftly condemned by Israel, extending the antagonism between the Israeli government and international organisations.

The commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2021, will present the reports to the council next week. They cover the period from the attack on southern Israel by Palestinian groups on October 7 to the end of 2023.

The report on Israel’s actions says it committed acts including forced starvation, murder or wilful killing, collective punishment and intentional attacks on civilians. It takes note of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population in Gaza” by the Israeli military.

“The immense numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza and widespread destruction of civilian objects and infrastructure were the inevitable result of a strategy undertaken with intent to cause maximum damage, disregarding the principles of distinction, proportionality and adequate precautions,” a COI statement says.

“The crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys; forcible transfer; and torture and inhuman and cruel treatment were committed,” it reads.

The frequency, prevalence and severity of sexual and gender-based crimes against Palestinians by Israeli security forces during the period amounted to signs that some forms of such violence “are part of ISF operating procedures”, it adds.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war in Gaza and about 85,000 others injured, according to data provided by the Ministry of Health in the enclave.

Israel launched its war in Gaza after the October 7 attack, in which Palestinian groups killed about 1,200 people and took some 250 others to Gaza as captives. Israel has announced 116 captives remain in Gaza, of which 41 are reportedly dead.

The report on the actions of Palestinian groups says the military wings of Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups performed deliberate killings and mistreatment of civilians, hostage-taking, and sexual and gender-based violence during the attack. Civilians and members of the Israeli security forces were victims, it notes.

“These actions constitute war crimes and violations and abuses of [international humanitarian and human rights law],” the report says.

“Women were subjected to gender-based violence during the course of their execution or abduction,” it states. However, it adds that reports of rape could not be independently verified. Hamas has repeatedly denied allegations its fighters committed acts of sexual violence during the attack.

The COI says it was “particularly egregious that children were targeted for abduction”.

The report also adds that Israeli authorities “failed to protect civilians in southern Israel on almost every front”.

“Israel must immediately stop its military operations and attacks in Gaza,” COI chair Navi Pillay stated.

“Hamas and Palestinian armed groups must immediately cease rocket attacks and release all hostages. The taking of hostages constitutes a war crime.”

“It is imperative that all those who have committed crimes be held accountable,” he added.

Israel, which refused to cooperate with the team of experts, was swift to condemn the report. Rejecting the findings, it accused the COI of “systematic anti-Israeli discrimination”.

“The CoI has once again proven that its actions are all in the service of a narrow-led political agenda against Israel. Today’s reports confirm what we have repeatedly said: the Pillay Commission will never do justice to the Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism,” stated Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN Meirav Eilon Shahar.

Israel has consistently accused international organisations, including the UN, of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism, with the claims increasing during its war in Gaza.

It reacted with fury last month as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) applied for arrest warrants against top Israeli and Hamas leaders, alleging war crimes.

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