A long-awaited report by a United Nations special investigative panel concluded that both Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas may have been guilty of war crimes during last summer's Gaza war.
The report released Monday said the commission, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, gathered “substantial evidence pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights” by both sides that in some cases “may amount to war crimes.”
Both sides immediately rejected the findings, denying any complicity in war crimes, although both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority welcomed the criticism of Israel.
The 50-day war broke out in July after the abduction and killing of three Jewish teens in the West Bank and the subsequent kidnapping and burning of a Palestinian youth in an apparent revenge attack. With tension escalating between the two sides, Israel launched a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank and the militants unleashed repeated rocket attacks on Israel, events that led to an Israeli assault on the coastal enclave.
The fiercest military clash between Israel and Hamas, the fighting resulted in the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians — more than half of whom were civilians, according to the report — injured more than 11,000 and caused widespread devastation to civilian property and infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip.
“The effects of this devastation had a severe impact on the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and will do so for generations to come,” the report said.
The report also acknowledged the “tragic results of hostilities” on the Israeli side, where civilians were pinned down in bomb shelters as thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers died in the conflict, and rockets killed six civilians inside Israel.
The panel said it was “deeply moved by the immense suffering” of Palestinian and Israeli victims alike and urged both sides to restore human rights and dignity to all civilians and take “immediate steps to ensure accountability,” calling Israel’s investigating mechanisms “flawed” and Palestinian investigations “woefully inadequate.”
Israel released its own report on the conflict last week, defending the need for military action and accusing Hamas of war crimes.
The Israeli military continues to review 190 cases of suspected violations of international law, and the Military Advocate General has ordered several criminal investigations as it continued to examine the rest.
Israel did not cooperate with the U.N. investigation and denied the panel access on the ground. Testimony was heard in Amman, Jordan, and in Geneva as well as electronically and through written submissions and open sources.
The panel’s report cited Israeli missile strikes in densely populated neighborhoods as possible war crimes, saying the location of the targets, the weapons used and the timing of the attacks indicated that the Israel Defense Forces may not have done everything feasible to avoid civilian casualties.
Also cited as possible war crimes were the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas' armed wing.
A statement from Israel’s foreign ministry on Monday expressed regret that the report equated “Israel’s moral behavior” with that of the “terror organizations it confronted.”
“Israel does not commit war crimes. Israel defends itself from a terror organization that calls for its destruction and commits many war crimes,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in parliament.
Any country would do the same under the circumstances, Netanyahu added.
“We will continue acting with force and determination against anyone trying to hurt our citizens, and we will do so in keeping with international law,” he said.
Palestinians expressed satisfaction with the report's findings about Israel, but Hamas rejected what it called a "false balance" between the two sides.
“Hamas believes that the U.N. condemnation of the Zionist occupation in the report of the recent offensive on Gaza and committing war crimes against our children, women and elderly people is a positive development, despite the attempt of equality between the victim and executioner,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the “State of Palestine” would review the findings and recommendations in keeping with its “staunch commitment” to ensuring respect for international law.
Erekat said the only true path to peace was ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and decried the “impunity with which [crime] continues to be perpetrated” against Palestinians.
The U.N. panel was appointed in July 2014 to investigate the situation of Palestinian human rights in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem while the fighting in Gaza was still taking place. Israel rejected the commission from the outset as biased.
Earlier this year, international legal expert William Schabas resigned as head of the panel after being accused of bias against Israel for a one-time professional association with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent MaherAbukhater in Ramallah and Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.