Gaza conflict brought accusations of war crimes against both sides

By Rory McCarthy, The Guardian – 15 Sept 2009

The UN report released today is the latest in a long line of investigations following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Israel‘s three-week war in Gaza brought a wave of international criticism. About 1,400 people died and accusations of possible war crimes have been levelled against both the Israeli military and the Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, notably Hamas. The latest and most prominent inquiry (pdf), led by Richard Goldstone, a respected South African judge, was conducted for the UN human rights council.

Israel said it was responding to rocket fire from Gaza which had begun again after what was supposed to be a six-month truce broke down with violations on both sides. It was the latest, and most devastating, in a series of Israeli military raids and bombing missions in Gaza since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in early 2006. In that time hundreds of Palestinians have died and Israel has imposed a series of economic restrictions that now amount to a major blockade of the Gaza strip. Over the past eight years, militant rockets and mortars from Gaza have killed 20 people inside Israel.

According to B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, 1,387 Palestinians died in the January war in Gaza. The group, which compiled the figures after months of research by field workers, said that more than half of the dead, 773 people, were not taking part in hostilities. Among them were 320 children and 109 women. On the Israeli side, three civilians were killed by Palestinian rockets and 10 soldiers died, four of whom were killed accidentally by their own troops.

The Israeli military, however, disputes those figures and says only 295 civilians were killed out of a total of 1,166 deaths. The military says it has a list of named fatalities, but has refused to publish it or to pass it to rights groups such as B’Tselem for checking.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have carried out their own investigations of the conduct of the war and made serious accusations against both sides.

Amnesty said Israel’s attacks breached the laws of war and its failure to investigate properly was a sign of its intention to avoid accountability. Much of the destruction was “wanton”, with direct attacks on civilians and civilian property, violating laws prohibiting indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks and prohibiting collective punishment. White phosphorus was repeatedly used “indiscriminately over densely populated residential areas”, in violation of international law, it said.

The pattern of Israeli attacks showed “elements of reckless conduct, disregard for civilian lives and property and a consistent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects,” it said. Israeli troops also obstructed access for ambulances and medical staff and in some cases used civilians as “human shields”.

Amnesty said Palestinian militant groups fired rockets and mortars directly at civilian communities in southern Israel, in violation of international law, and used empty homes and properties as combat positions, endangering the civilians around them – but it found no evidence of Hamas using civilians as “human shields”, a claim Israel has made repeatedly.

Human Rights Watch made similar accusations, again finding that Israel illegally used white phosphorus and also that it unlawfully shot at civilians who were waving white flags. Israel’s military investigation into soldiers’ conduct was not credible, it said. Human Rights Watch also said Hamas fired indiscriminately at civilians in Israel, a violation of international law.

In May, a first UN inquiry (pdf) accused the Israeli military of “varying degrees of negligence or recklessness” and said the UN should press claims for reparations for deaths and damage. It looked at nine separate cases in which UN property was damaged and UN staff and other civilians were hurt or killed. It found the Israeli military took “inadequate” precautions towards UN premises and said the deaths of civilians should be investigated under the rules of international humanitarian law.

For its part, Israel has denied the allegations made against its military during the Gaza war, which it calls Operation Cast Lead, and has insisted its accusers are biased against Israel. The Israeli government refused to take part in the Goldstone inquiry.

In July, the Israeli foreign ministry published a 164-page report (pdf) defending its conduct of the war. It said Israel had “both a right and an obligation” to take military action against Hamas to stop rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel. Israel’s military operations were “necessary and a proportionate response”, it said. Although civilians died, Israel insists it did not violate international law.

Israeli military investigations are continuing. Earlier this month it emerged that officers have started taking witness testimony from some Palestinians in Gaza whose relatives were killed and injured, notably one incident in Izbet Abed Rabbo where two young girls were apparently shot dead by Israeli troops and a third seriously injured.

Hamas does not deny that it fired rockets at civilians in southern Israel and says it is fighting against the Israeli occupation.

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