Israel-Gaza conflict: Israel may have committed war crimes, says UN human rights chief

A top UN official said an Israeli airstrike and naval shelling that struck seven children on a Gaza beach last week could amount to war crimes

Jerusalem

The two week offensive in Gaza, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children in the crowded coastal enclave, could have seen war crimes committed by Israel, the UN’s top human rights official has warned.

The remarks from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in Geneva came a week after Israel escalated its Operation Protective Edge – launched with the stated purpose of halting Hamas rocket fire – from aerial bombardments into a ground campaign that has resulted in a sharp increase in Palestinian casualties.

They raised the possibility that the military campaign, if it continues much longer or is escalated further, could turn into a public relations and diplomatic debacle for Israel as happened with its Operation Cast Lead campaign launched in Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

Citing cases of Israeli air strikes and shelling of houses and hospitals, Ms Pillay told a UN session considering a resolution to set up an international inquiry into Israeli actions that “there seems to be a strong possibility international humanitarian law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes”.

Referring to Israeli naval shelling that killed four Palestinian boys on the Gaza beach on 16 July, Mr Pillay added: “The disregard for international humanitarian law and for the right to life was sharply evident. Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated.” Tonight, the UN council agreed to launch the inquiry.

According to Reuters, Ms Pillay was also critical of militant groups’ indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars, which has killed three people in Israel and forced much of the country to seek protection in shelters and safety rooms. She said it was failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets. Israeli leaders dismissed Ms Pillay’s criticisms as reflecting an anti-Israel animus on the part of the council. “These are intolerably biased statements based on newspaper clippings, without a discernment of the facts,’’ said the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson. “They may pander to the more obscurantist members of the human rights council but they do a huge disservice to human rights.’’

Video: Children often the victims in Gaza
Read more: US bans Israel flights
Four Palestinian boys killed while playing football
Ban Ki-moon tells Benjamin Netanyahu 'stop fighting, start talking'
Hamas celebrates alleged kidnapping Israeli soldier

For the Israeli government  the criticisms had echoes of the 2009 Goldstone report on Israel-Hamas hostilities that year. It flayed Israel’s conduct of the warfare and concluded that both Israel and Hamas had committed potential war crimes. Israel rejected that inquiry and report as biased, but it had the result of encouraging the boycotting and delegitimisation of the Jewish state. The Goldstone inquiry was set up by vote by the UN human rights council.

Mr Hirschson took pains to stress his view that during the Gaza campaign, the Israeli military had “taken steps to safeguard civilians not taken by any military in modern history”.

These steps, he said, included warnings of impending strikes by leafleting, telephone calls and text messages “and sometimes suggesting where to move to a safe zone”. He said warnings to evacuate are amplified by firing non-explosive missiles on the roofs of homes that are being targeted.  Israel’s Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, said her country was acting according to international law. “It is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens,” she reportedly told Israel radio.

Read more: The myth of Hamas’s human shields
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
Deadly flechette shells 'used by Israeli military in Gaza Strip’
It's no longer so easy to get away with murder in the age of social media

Palestinians say that warnings are not issued in some cases and in others there is insufficient time to leave. Mr Hirschson accused Hamas of “engaging in criminal behaviour by using their population as human shields and telling the population not to pay attention to Israeli warnings. It’s almost as if they want to generate civilian casualties to wage public relations war against Israel”.

However, all leading Israeli human rights groups are not convinced by these government explanations and their assessment of the situation is not far removed from that of Ms Pillay. Referring to reports of strikes against civilian targets, 10 Israeli human rights groups wrote to the Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Monday that the “reports and data which have accumulated thus far regarding the nature of the strikes and level of injury to non-combatant civilians as a result of these strikes raise serious concern of severe violations of international humanitarian law and specifically the laws of war”. The groups said they were especially concerned about possible violations in Sunday’s fighting in the Shajaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, during which more than 60 Palestinians and 13 soldiers were killed.

An Israeli 155mm self-propelled howitzer fires from southern Israeli into the Gaza Strip (EPA) An Israeli 155mm self-propelled howitzer fires from southern Israeli into the Gaza Strip (EPA)
The army, for its part, issued a statement saying that Hamas had used a hospital, al-Wafa, to launch rockets against Israel, as a command and control centre and to keep weapons. “It is a modus operandi of Hamas to use institutions meant to be neutral in order to terrorise Israel and the Israeli forces sent to Gaza,” said Major Arye Shalicar of the army spokesman unit. Major Shalicar said that Israeli troops had killed all the gunmen that had fired on troops from the hospital after its staff heeded calls to vacate.

In other developments, a Thai agricultural worker on an Israeli farm was killed when a rocket from Gaza struck near the southern city of Ashkelon as Hamas and its allies kept up their bombardments. The army announced that two more soldiers had died in Gaza fighting on Tuesday, bringing the number of Israeli military men to die in the war to 29. At least 649 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have been killed in the past 15 days of fighting, officials say. The UN estimates that about 74 per cent of those killed in Gaza were civilians.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss