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'Credible' reports of Gaza war crimes on both sides, UN says

Said Khatib, AFP | A Palestinian boy rides his bicycle past buildings which were destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014 in the southern Gaza Strip

Both Israel and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes during last year's Gaza war, a widely anticipated United Nations report said Monday, decrying the "unprecedented" devastation and human suffering.

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The Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict announced it had gathered "substantial information" and "credible allegations" that both sides had committed war crimes during the conflict, which killed more than 2,140 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers.

"The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come," said the chair of the commission, New York judge Mary McGowan Davis.

Israel, which has been harshly critical of the commission since its inception last year, blasted the report as biased, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisting his country "does not commit war crimes."

"Israel defends itself against a terror organisation which calls for its destruction and that itself carries out war crimes," Netanyahu said in a statement, referring to Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The report criticised both sides, but especially decried the "huge firepower" Israel had used in Gaza, with more than 6,000 airstrikes and 50,000 artillery shells fired during the 51-day operation.

The bombings of residential buildings had especially dire consequences, wiping out entire families, with 551 children killed, a choked-up McGowen Davis pointed out to reporters.

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians had been killed in their own homes, and the report provided heart-wrenching testimony from a member of the Al Najjar family who lost 19 of his relatives in an attack in Khan Younis on July 26, including his mother and all of his children.

"We all died that day, even those who survived," he said.

According to the report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 29, at least 142 families lost three or more members in an attack on residential buildings during last summer's war, resulting in 742 deaths.

Civilian attacks sanctioned?

"The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of air-strikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises questions of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government," the commission said in a statement.

The investigators meanwhile also decried the "indiscriminate" firing of thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel, which it said appeared to have been intended to "spread terror" among Israeli civilians.

Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars towards Israel, killing six civilians and injuring at least 1,600 others, it pointed out.

And the two-member commission pointed out that tunnels dug by Palestinian militants into Israel had traumatised Israeli civilians "who feared they could be attacked at any moment by gunmen bursting out of the ground."

While the conflict has ended, McGowen Davis pointed to a "pervasive failure on all sides to achieve justice" for the wrongs committed.

The investigators voiced particular concern that a sense of "impunity prevails across the board for violations ... allegedly committed by Israeli forces, whether it be in the context of active hostilities in Gaza or killings, torture and ill-treatment in the West Bank."

They urged Israel to "break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable."

The commission was not granted entry to Israel or the conflict area, and relied instead on more than 280 confidential interviews and some 500 written submissions for its findings.

The report had been scheduled to be published during the council's main annual session in March, but the investigators obtained a delay after the head of the team quit under Israeli pressure.

Canadian international law expert William Schabas resigned as chair of the commission after Israel charged he was biased because he had prepared a legal opinion for the Palestine Liberation Organization in October 2012.

Israel was not satisfied, calling for the entire inquiry to be shelved, insisting the commission and the Human Rights Council which created it are inherently biased against the Jewish state.

Israel's foreign ministry on Monday dismissed the report as "politically motivated and morally flawed from the outset," and insisted the country's military acted appropriately.

(AFP)

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