Israel’s actions in Gaza ‘intentional attack on civilians’: UN inquiry

New report says Israeli military and Palestinian groups committed war crimes and rights abuses since October 7.

The Israeli military’s “deliberate” use of heavy weapons in the Gaza Strip has been an “intentional and direct attack on the civilian population”, a new report by a United Nations-backed independent commission has found.

Navi Pillay, chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said on Wednesday that Israel has committed crimes against humanity, forced starvation, extermination, murder, and inhuman and cruel treatment of Palestinians. She also accused Palestinian groups of war crimes.

As she presented the report to the UN Human Rights Council, Pillay said the Israeli military operating in Gaza “forcibly transferred almost the entire population into a small enclosure that is unsafe and uninhabitable” and used heavy weapons in densely populated areas in “an intentional and direct attack on the civilian population”.

Pillay said the commission concluded that specific forms of sexual and gender-based violence constituted part of the Israeli forces’ operating procedures.

“Although Israeli officials have repeatedly stated their operations in Gaza are intended to destroy Hamas and release hostages, yet neither of these aims has been largely achieved at the expense of thousands of lives,” she said.

“We found that Israeli forces committed sexual and gender-based violence with the intent to humiliate and further subordinate the Palestinian community. Palestinian women were targeted and subjected to sexual violence and harassment online and in person.

“Men and boys experienced specific persecutory acts, including sexual and gender-based violence amounting to torture and inhuman and cruel treatment.”

Pillay also noted that the daily onslaught in Gaza must not sideline attention to a parallel wave of violence in the occupied West Bank, where UN human rights chief Volker Turk said on Tuesday the situation is “dramatically deteriorating”.

More Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers there since the start of the current war in October than in any other recorded period, Pillay told the council.

War crimes by Palestinian groups

Pillay said Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups also committed extensive war crimes on October 7 during their attacks on southern Israel.

She listed them as: intentionally directing attacks against civilians, murder or willful killing, torture, sexual violence, inhuman or cruel treatment, and the taking of hostages.

The commission, she said, “identified patterns indicative of sexual violence and concluded that these were not isolated but perpetrated in similar ways in similar locations, primarily against Israeli women”. The commission’s report said reports of rape could not be independently verified.

She warned the “exploitation of sexual violence in conflict by all parties for political propaganda risks diverting attention from the experience and from the needs of the survivor as well as fuelling longstanding hostilities”.

Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7 have killed more than 37,000 people, 40 percent of them children, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. The October 7 attacks in Israel killed 1,139 people.

‘Overwhelming enormity of tragedy’

The report was the UN’s first in-depth investigation of the events since October 7 until the end of 2023. The commission was set up by the Human Rights Council in 2021.

It has an ongoing mandate with no time limit and benefits from a chief who is a former UN high commissioner for human rights and a former South African judge, according to Al Jazeera’s James Bays.

“She said the enormity of the tragedy overwhelms the commission. The rules say they are supposed to produce a report that is up to 10,700 pages. They have produced that report, but they have added two separate very large annexes,” he reported from Geneva.

“One is about what happened on October 7 when she says war crimes were committed by Hamas and other Palestinian groups and one about what happened to Palestinians in Gaza after October 7, where she says there were war crimes by the Israelis.”

Pillay told Al Jazeera it was “tragic” that Israel has prevented the commission from visiting victims inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

“What I found particularly disturbing is they not only deny us access into Israel and Gaza, but the whole of Palestine; we need to talk to victims there as well,” she said.

The commission will be releasing further reports looking into attacks on healthcare facilities in Gaza and the war’s effect on education.

Ibrahim Khraishi, Palestinian ambassador to the UN, thanked the commission for its report and condemned abuses committed by Israel during the “genocidal war”.

Israel gave its seat at the council meeting to the mother of one of the dozens of captives held in Gaza, who delivered an emotional speech.

“Mr President, we should be on the same side – the side fighting hostage-taking, never accepting the use of young women as tools for trade. Please help me hug my daughter again,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of a 23-year-old captive.

Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera the report was unlikely to have an immediate effect on Israel’s conduct but could be used as evidence in future legal proceedings and could lead Western countries to reconsider their support for Israeli.

Source: Al Jazeera