January 12, 2009
Demands grow for Gaza war crimes investigation
01.13.2009 | The Guardian
By Chris McGreal in Jerusalem
A freelance filmmaker in Gaza shot this material for Save the Children at a
UN-supported school for pupils displaced from their homes by the Israeli bombings
Link to this video Israel is facing growing demands from senior UN officials and
human rights groups for an international war crimes investigation in Gaza over
allegations such as the “reckless and indiscriminate” shelling of residential areas
and use of Palestinian families as human shields by soldiers.
With the death toll from the 17-day Israeli assault on Gaza climbing above 900,
pressure is increasing for an independent inquiry into specific incidents, such as
the shelling of a UN school turned refugee centre where about 40 people died, as
well as the question of whether the military tactics used by Israel systematically
breached humanitarian law.
The UN’s senior human rights body approved a resolution yesterday condemning the
Israeli offensive for “massive violations of human rights”. A senior UN source said
the body’s humanitarian agencies were compiling evidence of war crimes and passing
it on to the “highest levels” to be used as seen fit.
Some human rights activists allege that the Israeli leadership gave an order to keep
military casualties low no matter what cost to civilians. That strategy has directly
contributed to one of the bloodiest Israeli assaults on the Palestinian territories,
John Ging, head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said: “It’s about
accountability [over] the issue of the appropriateness of the force used, the
proportionality of the force used and the whole issue of duty of care of
“We don’t want to join any chorus of passing judgment but there should be an
investigation of any and every incident where there are concerns there might have
been violations in international law.”
The Israeli military are accused of:
numbers of innocent casualties;
Israeli military actions prompted an unusual public rebuke from the International
Red Cross after the army moved a Palestinian family into a building and shelled it,
killing 30. The surviving children clung to the bodies of their dead mothers for
four days while the army blocked rescuers from reaching the wounded.
Human Rights Watch has called on the UN security council to set up a commission of
inquiry into alleged war crimes.
Two leading Israeli human rights organisations have separately written to the
country’s attorney general demanding he investigate the allegations.
But critics remain sceptical that any such inquiry will take place, given that
Israel has previously blocked similar attempts with the backing of the US.
Amnesty International says hitting residential streets with shells that send blast
and shrapnel over a wide area constitutes “prima facie evidence of war crimes”.
“There has been reckless and disproportionate and in some cases indiscriminate use
of force,” said Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty investigator in Israel. “There has been
the use of weaponry that shouldn’t be used in densely populated areas because it’s
known that it will cause civilian fatalities and casualties.
“They have extremely sophisticated missiles that can be guided to a moving car and
they choose to use other weapons or decide to drop a bomb on a house knowing that
there were women and children inside. These are very, very clear breaches of
Israel’s most prominent human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has written to the
attorney general in Jerusalem, Meni Mazuz, asking him to investigate suspected
crimes including how the military selects its targets and the killing of scores of
policemen at a passing out parade.
“Many of the targets seem not to have been legitimate military targets as specified
by international humanitarian law,” said Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem.
Rovera has also collected evidence that the Israeli army holds Palestinian families
prisoner in their own homes as human shields. “It’s standard practice for Israeli
soldiers to go into a house, lock up the family in a room on the ground floor and
use the rest of the house as a military base, as a sniper’s position. That is the
absolute textbook case of human shields.
“It has been practised by the Israeli army for many years and they are doing it
again in Gaza now,” she said.
While there are growing calls for an international investigation, the form it would
take is less clear. The UN’s human rights council has the authority to investigate
allegations of war crimes but Israel has blocked its previous attempts to do so. The
UN security council could order an investigation, and even set up a war crimes
tribunal, but that is likely to be vetoed by the US and probably Britain.
The international criminal court has no jurisdiction because Israel is not a
signatory. The UN security council could refer the matter to the court but is
Benjamin Rutland, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said an international
investigation of the army’s actions was not justified. “We have international
lawyers at every level of the command whose job it is to authorise targeting
decisions, rules of engagement … We don’t think we have breached international law
in any of these instances,” he said.