Israel, Palestinians criticized over fighting at U.N. sites in Gaza

U.N. report finds Israel responsible for deaths at U.N. facilities in Gaza -- but also criticizes Palestinians

A United Nations inquiry found Israel responsible for the deaths of 44 Palestinians and widespread damage at seven U.N. facilities in the Gaza Strip during the war last summer, according to a summary of the panel’s report released Monday by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also faulted Palestinian militants for stashing weapons in United Nations schools.

In November 2014, Ban announced the establishment of an internal, independent board of inquiry to examine incidents in which fatalities, injuries or damage were caused at U.N. facilities in Gaza during the fighting, or weapons were found on the premises. Ten such incidents were reported during the 50-day conflict.

The panel completed its investigation in February and compiled a 207-page report, which includes confidential information and will not be made public. However, Ban released a 27-page executive summary.

“I deplore the fact that 44 Palestinians were killed and at least 227 injured at U.N. premises being used as emergency shelters,” Ban wrote in a letter to Dina Kawar, president of the Security Council. “U.N. premises are inviolable and should be places of safety, particularly in a situation of armed conflict,” he said.

At the same time, Ban said he was “dismayed” that Palestinian fighters put U.N. schools at risk by using them to hide their weaponry during the fighting. Though the schools were empty at the time and not being used as shelters, Ban said it was "unacceptable" to use schools to store weapons and that it undermined the understanding that U.N. facilities are off-limits as targets. He said that in at least two cases weapons were fired from U.N. schools.

The secretary-general expressed “profound and continuing concern” for the civilian population of both Gaza and Israel and emphasized both sides’ right to live in peace and security.

Noting the “agony of Palestinians in Gaza” and their “tragic, decades-long predicament” as well as Israeli civilians’ exposure to “rocket and terrorist attacks by Hamas” and other militants, Ban said he still believes the well-being of both sides would be best secured by a successful peace process that achieves a two-state solution.

Ban welcomed Israel’s establishing criminal investigations into incidents during the Gaza war and expressed hope that Palestinians would also conduct examinations into possible criminal activity.

Though Israel has boycotted a panel appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of war crimes, its government cooperated with the independent inquiry called by Ban and granted full access to Gaza and information.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the report would be studied carefully and that Israel was committed to working with the U.N. to improve security at the organization’s facilities in Gaza. In a series of tweets Monday, the ministry welcomed the finding that Palestinian militants had exploited U.N. facilities during the fighting.

Several of the incidents cited in the summary of the U.N. report have already been investigated by Israel and criminal investigations have been opened in several cases, the ministry said. Taking a swipe at the U.N. Human Rights Council panel, whose chairman, William Schabas, resigned in February amid Israeli allegations of bias, the ministry tweeted that Israel has proven forthcoming when asked to “assist in a professional, unbiased inquiry.”

The Associated Press quoted Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules Gaza, as saying the U.N. report was a “clear condemnation” of Israel. On reports that militants used U.N. schools to store weapons he said: “Hamas has no information about this.”

Sobelman is a special correspondent

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