In an apparent effort to soften the blow of an expected United Nations report on the Gaza war, Israel published its own report Sunday on last year’s deadly conflict, defending the need for the military offensive and accusing Hamas of war crimes.
The report, released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, details the sequence of events that started with the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teens in the West Bank and a massive rocket attack on southern Israel that followed Israel’s crackdown on Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization that controls Gaza.
The escalation reached a critical point on July 7 with a barrage exceeding 60 rockets fired from Gaza. According to the report, Israel was “left with no choice but to launch an aerial campaign … to protect its civilian population.” The report states that Israel’s decision to undertake a broad military operation to curb the attacks waged by Palestinian militants was “justified under international law.”
The report accused Hamas and other militant groups of deliberately embedding their military assets within heavily populated civilian areas and structures, exploiting civilians and putting them at risk in contravention of international law and in a way that “often constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
A spokesman for Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, was quoted in Israeli media dismissing the report and calling it “worthless.”
More than 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed in the fighting. The United Nations has said that the majority of the Palestinians killed were civilians, including about 500 children; Israel says that hundreds of the dead were Hamas fighters.
The report stressed that Israel’s military adheres to international law, taking what it said were unprecedented precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including aborting missions, as well as investigating allegations of criminal misconduct.
Despite the army’s efforts, “civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects regrettably resulted from Israeli attacks against military objectives,” the report said, stating, however, that these must be seen in context of the “reality of hostilities in a complex and rapidly changing urban terrain.”
Israel’s position found support from the High Level Military International Military Group, a group of senior international military and diplomatic officials, who visited Israel last month for a fact-finding mission and meetings with army and government officials.
“In war… mistakes are made, including errors of judgment, confusion and technical failure,” said that report, acknowledging that at times individual soldiers acted unlawfully. In its overall findings, however, the group, headed by Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said that Israel “not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict but in many cases exceeded the standard.”
Speaking before a cabinet meeting Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the completion of the Israeli report, which he said “presents the true picture” of last summer’s deadly conflict and “proved unequivocally” that the army’s actions were carried out in keeping with international law, even when fighting “terror organizations that deliberately violate these rules.”
The army’s advocate general and a special fact-finding group have been reviewing some 190 cases of alleged misconduct, some resulting in criminal investigations, according to the latest update last week.
The first criminal probes were ordered in September, shortly after a truce halted the fighting.
Even before its release, Netanyahu slammed the expected report of the special panel appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying the body was biased and hostile towards Israel. “This is an organization that has passed more decisions against Israel than against Syria, Iran and North Korean combined,” he said.
Israel refused to cooperate with the UNHRC panel appointed last July and denied its members access to sites in Israel and Gaza. The committee heard testimony in Amman, Jordan, and Geneva, as well as by video conference. Its report is due for publication June 29.
Netanyahu invited “whoever wants to know the truth” to read the Israeli report and that of the senior generals. Those who want to blame Israel automatically, he said, can “waste their time with the UN Human Rights Council report.”
Sobelman is a special correspondent