U.N. human rights chief says Israeli airstrikes on Gaza may be war crimes

Rubble of building destroyed in airstrike
A man sifts through the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The United Nations’ human rights chief said Thursday that Israeli forces may have committed war crimes in their 11-day war with the militant group Hamas, and called on Israel to allow an independent probe of military actions in the latest eruption of Mideast violence.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, also said Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire during the conflict was also a clear violation of the rules of war.

Bachelet’s remarks came as the U.N.’s Human Rights Council opened a one-day special session to discuss the “the grave human rights situation” in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, all primarily Palestinian enclaves.


Bachelet, a former president of Chile, called the 11-day war the “most significant escalation of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas since 2014, a conflict that left devastation and death in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas rules, before a cease-fire was declared last week.

At least 248 people, including 66 children, were killed in Gaza during a relentless campaign of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire. In Israel, 12 people died from Hamas’ constant rocket fire, including two children.

“Airstrikes in such densely populated areas resulted in a high level of civilian fatalities and injuries, as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure,” Bachelet said.

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“Such attacks may constitute war crimes,” she added, if they are deemed to be indiscriminate and disproportionate in their impact on civilians. Bachelet urged Israel to ensure accountability, as required under international law in such cases, including through “impartial, independent investigations” of actions in the escalation of violence.

She also deplored Hamas’ tactics, including locating military assets in densely populated civilian areas and firing rockets from them.


These rockets are indiscriminate and fail to distinguish between military and civilian objects, and their use, thereby, constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” Bachelet said. “However, the actions of one party do not absolve the other from its obligations under international law.”

She cautioned that unless the “root causes” of the violence are addressed, “it will certainly be a matter of time until the next round of violence commences with further pain and suffering for civilians on all sides.“

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The daylong debate involved personal accounts from Palestinians — such as that of a young female journalist from the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, an early flashpoint that triggered the violence — as well as statements from the council’s 47 member states and also observer states.

The Organization of Islamic Conference has presented a resolution that, if passed by the council, would mark an unprecedented level of scrutiny authorized by the council by setting up a permanent commission to report on human rights violations in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

A vote on the draft resolution was likely at the end of the session, which is largely virtual.

Israel — backed at times by the United States — accuses the council of anti-Israel bias and has generally refused to cooperate with its investigators.

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Israeli Ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar said Hamas — designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its allies — had fired 4,400 rockets at Israeli civilians from “from Palestinian homes, hospitals and schools. Each one of these rockets constitutes a war crime.”

“What would you do if rockets were fired at Dublin, Paris or Madrid?” she asked.

Riyad Maliki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, sought to highlight years of suffering by Palestinians in the lands controlled or occupied by Israel.

“The Israeli war machinery and terrorism of its settlers continue to target our children who face murder, arrest and displacement, deprived of a future in which they can live in peace and security,” he said by video message.