U.N. commission accuses Israel, Hamas of Gaza war crimes

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2009 

WORLD NEWS OFFENSIVE 3 MCT

Castro Abed Rabbo kneels in the wreckage of a family home in Ezbt Abed Rabbo, Gaza Strip, January 31, 2009. Abed Rabbo was one of several Palestinians who said he was forced by Israeli soldiers to check homes for militants and booby traps during the Israeli military's recent 22-day Gaza Strip offensive. (Dion Nissenbaum/MCT)

DION NISSENBAUM — MCT

JERUSALEM — After a six-month investigation, the U.N.'s Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict has concluded there's evidence that Israeli forces and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during Israel's recent military operations in Gaza.

The mission, headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, called on the United Nations Security Council to monitor Israeli and Palestinian investigations into these charges and urged that if these aren't taking place in good faith to refer these cases to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The 554-page report released Tuesday has detailed investigations into 36 incidents, including some that McClatchy reported previously, such as the shooting of civilians with white flags, the firing of white phosphorus shells and charges that Israeli soldiers used Palestinian men as human shields.

According to the report, these violations weren't aberrations but rather appeared to be "the result of deliberate guidance issued to soldiers."

The commission charged Palestinian groups with indiscriminately firing at southern Israel and causing terror among the civilian population. The mission didn't find evidence of Israeli charges that Palestinian militants deliberately hid among civilians. Israel has released a number of videos purporting to show Hamas militants using civilians for cover.

The commission, charged with investigating allegations of war crimes related to Israel's military operations in Gaza, began its work April 3. The 22-day military operation, which began last Dec. 27, cost the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The four-person mission came under attack almost immediately from Israeli officials, who refused to cooperate. They charged the mission with being one-sided, pointing out that the original mandate authorized an investigation into charges of Israeli war crimes and was altered only by an agreement between Goldstone and the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Special criticism was reserved for commission member Christine Chinkin, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, when it was discovered that she'd signed a letter last January published in The Sunday Times that accused Israel of war crimes.

A constant theme of Israeli soldiers' testimony after the war was that the Israel Defense Forces had made the protection of soldiers' lives its top priority. The report criticizes this approach, saying, "They must avoid taking undue risks with their soldiers' lives but neither can they transfer that risk to civilian men, women and children."

The mission didn't confine itself to investigating the operation. The report also refers to Israel's blockade of Gaza as a "collective punishment" and says "the series of acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing ... could lead a competent court to find the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister's office, reacted harshly to the report: "It was born in sin. Countries with atrocious human rights records sit there and criticize Israel. It's not just Israel that criticized the Human Rights Council. Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon have criticized its obsession with Israel," referring to the former and current U.N. secretaries general.

Israeli human rights groups have issued a statement calling on the government to "conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the suspicions."

Avi Bell, a professor of Law at Bar Ilan University, took exception to the report, disagreeing with its legal conclusions and pointing out, "They say they are a fact-finding mission. So how are they coming up with all these legal conclusions, especially wrong ones?"

The report is due to be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Sept. 29 and the council will then decide whether to refer it to the Security Council. If it's referred to the Security Council, that council will decide whether to adopt the recommendations.

According to Bell, if charges are referred to the International Criminal Court, the court will have no jurisdiction, since Israel isn't a party to the court. "In order for the International Criminal Court to have jurisdiction, the accused has to be a citizen of a state that accepts the court's jurisdiction," he said.

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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Follow Mideast news at McClatchy's Checkpoint Jerusalem.

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