MK Touma-Sliman on UN’s 2014 Gaza Conflict Report: Submit Allegations of War Crimes to ICC

The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza conflict has gathered substantial information pointing to the possible commission of war crimes by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

A Palestinian child within a kite in front of the destroyed Al-Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had had 90 flats.

A Palestinian child within a kite in front of the destroyed Al-Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had had 90 flats. (Photo: Activestills)

“The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come,” Justice Mary McGowan Davis, chair of the commission, told a press briefing on Monday, June 22, adding that, “there is also on-going fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat.” The 2014 hostilities saw a massive increase in firepower used in Gaza, with more than 6,000 airstrikes by Israel and approximately 50,000 tank and artillery shells fired. In the 51 day operation, which took place in July and August of 2014, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed, a third of them children. Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars towards Israel, killing 6 civilians and injuring at least 1,600.

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians, in particular women and children, were killed in their own homes. Survivors gave graphic testimony describing air strikes that reduced buildings to piles of dust and rubble in seconds. “I woke up…in the hospital, and I later learned that my sister, mother and my children had all died,” said a member of the Al Najjar family after an attack in Khan Younis on July 26 in which 19 of his relatives were killed. “We all died that day, even those who survived,” he said.

At least 142 families lost three or more members in attacks on residential buildings during the summer of 2014, resulting in 742 deaths. “The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of air-strikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises the question of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government. The commission is concerned about Israel’s extensive use of weapons with a wide kill and injury radius; though not illegal, their use in densely populated areas is highly likely to kill combatants and civilians indiscriminately. There appears also to be a pattern whereby the IDF issued warnings to people to leave a neighborhood and then automatically considered anyone remaining to be a fighter. This practice makes attacks on civilians highly likely. During the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza that began in mid-July 2014, hundreds of people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed or damaged,” said Justice Davis.

Ambulance call centers said they received desperate appeals for help from people in the neighborhood of Shuja’iya in Gaza City, during which they could hear young children screaming in the background. “There was an explosion about every ten seconds,” said a witness in Rafah in early August where the IDF launched a major operation after they believed one of their soldiers had been captured. “When the safety of an Israeli soldier is at stake, all the rules seem to be disregarded,” commented Justice Davis.

The hostilities also caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of civilians in Israel. Witnesses living near Gaza spoke of being disturbed by seeing the bombing from their sitting room windows but also struggled to reach shelters in time with their children when the sirens alerted them to incoming attacks. The indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel appeared to have the intention of spreading terror among civilians there. In addition, the Israeli military discovered 14 tunnels extending from Gaza into Israel that were used to attack Israeli soldiers during this period. The idea of the tunnels traumatized Israeli civilians who feared they could be attacked at any moment by gunmen bursting out of the ground.

In the West Bank including East Jerusalem, 27 Palestinians were killed and 3,020 injured between June and August 2014. The number killed during these three months was equal to the total number of fatalities for the whole of 2013. The commission is concerned about what appears to be the increasing use of live ammunition for crowd control by the Israeli Security Forces, which raises the likelihood of death or serious injury. Impunity prevails across the board for violations allegedly committed by Israeli forces, both in Gaza and the West Bank. “Israel must break with its lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable,” said the commissioners, “and accountability on the Palestinian side is also woefully inadequate”.

The commission is disturbed by Israel’s decision to close its criminal investigation into the case of the killing of four children on the beach in Gaza on July 16, 2014. International journalists and many Palestinian eyewitnesses do not appear to have been interviewed by the Israeli authorities, which raises questions about the thoroughness of their investigation.

The commission was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2014 to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the context of the military operations conducted last summer. The commission comprises Justice Mary McGowan Davis (United States) and Dr. Doudou Diene (Senegal).

The Israeli authorities did not respond to repeated requests by the commission for information and direct access to Israel and to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). However the commission obtained harrowing first hand testimony by means of Skype, VTC and telephone interviews. It also conducted face-to-face interviews with victims and witnesses from the West Bank during two visits to Jordan and spoke to victims and witnesses from Israel who travelled to Geneva. The commission conducted more than 280 confidential interviews and received some 500 written submissions.

Announcing the release of the report on Monday, Justice Davis and Dr. Diene outlined a number of steps the parties and the international community should take. One of these was that countries should actively support the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “We were deeply moved by the immense suffering and resilience of the victims,” the commissioners concluded, “we just hope our report contributes in some small way to ending the cycle of violence”. The commission is scheduled to formally present its report to the UN Human Rights Council on next Monday, June 29, in Geneva.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash – Joint List) expressed support for the report, calling the operation conducted by the Israeli army (“Operation Protective Edge”) an “ugly war…that cost the lives of about 1,500 Palestinian civilians, including about 500 children, and left over 10,000 people homeless and thousands injured.” Touma-Sliman added: “War crimes of this kind require the report to be submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for war criminals to be put on trial to avoid the continuing trampling of human dignity and liberty that happened in Gaza in 2014 and continues in the occupied territories every day.”

According to extreme-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the report has “blood on its hands,” as, in his view, it permits the murder of Jews and cheapens their blood, ties the hands of IDF soldiers from being able to defend Israel, and ignores last summer’s kidnapping and murder of three teenage boys by terrorists with ties to Hamas. Bennett, chairman of the Bayit Yehudi party said the report “tries to create symmetry between us and Hamas, but it is not true. There is a good side and a bad side; a side that tries to avoid civilians and a side that targets them.” “Israel will continue to defend itself, but to the UN, I say: Shame on you,” Bennett declared. Later Monday, in a speech to the plenum in the Knesset, Bennett pointed out that the UN used B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence testimony to compile the report, and called for a bill limiting foreign government funding for NGOs to be passed as soon as possible.

“The IDF is the most moral army in the world, and Israel will continue doing everything to protect its citizens, despite the UN’s biased reports,” Culture Minister Miri Regev added. “Opposition” leader MK Yitzhak Herzog (Zionist Union), who was in London on Monday, said that he does not need an international report or committee to tell him that “the IDF is a moral army.”

Speaking at the Jewish News Conference in London another “opposition” leader, Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid called the report an “international outrage.” “This isn’t an investigation – it’s Hamas propaganda,” he said. “It is intolerable for a report like this to be released.” Lapid pointed out that he was a member of the Security Cabinet during Operation Protective Edge and said he knows from up close that “there is no army in the history of warfare that did more than the IDF to prevent harming innocent people.” Extreme-right Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said that “Israel does not commit war crimes.”

Saeb Erekat, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement: “The State of Palestine will review the findings and recommendations of the commission with the highest consideration, in line with its staunch commitment to ensuring respect for these esteemed bodies of international law.”

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