UN rights chief: Israeli strikes on Gaza may be war crimes

Palestinian firefighters search urgently for survivors and bodies under the rubble after an intensive civilian bombardment of Gaza City, May 16, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The UN high commissioner for human rights said on Thursday that Israel's deadly strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Islamist group Hamas had violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Michelle Bachelet said her office had verified the deaths of 270 Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 68 children, during violence this month. Most were killed in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where Israel fought militants for 11 days. The conflict ended with a ceasefire.

Hamas rockets killed 10 Israelis and residents.

Michelle Bachelet said her office had verified the deaths of 270 Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 68 children, during violence this month

She was addressing a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, held at the request of Muslim states who have asked for a UN commission of inquiry to investigate possible crimes and to establish command responsibility.

The resolution, presented by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Palestinian delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, was to be voted on later on Thursday.

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The United States, Israel's closest ally, did not sign up to address the talks, where it has observer status, appearing to shun the ninth session held on Gaza since 2006.

"Regrettably, the self-professed global champions of human rights continue to shield the occupier from global accountability, and literally provide arms and ammunitions for its widely reported war crimes and crimes of apartheid against the Palestinian people," Pakistan's ambassador to the OIC, Khalil Hashmi, said, speaking on behalf of the Islamic group.

The conflict erupted after Hamas demanded Israeli forces leave the Al Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem and later launched rockets towards Israel.

Bachelet said "indiscriminate" strikes from rockets launched by Hamas constituted "a clear violation of international humanitarian law".

She said Israel's strikes in Gaza, including shelling, missile strikes and attacks from the sea, caused widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and fatalities.

"Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard," Bachelet said.

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"If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate, such attacks might constitute war crimes," she added.

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Hamas was a "jihadist, genocidal, terrorist organisation" and accused the group of using Palestinian civilians as human shields to conceal its rockets.

"Each one of these rockets constitutes a war crime," she said, in reference to what Israeli officials have said were 4,400 rockets fired into Israel, most of which they said were intercepted by Israel's missile defense shield.

Hamas says it is struggling for Palestinian rights against Israeli oppression and denies using civilians as human shields. It says Israel's actions against Gaza are part of a strategy of collective punishment.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said: "Israel, the occupation and apartheid authority, continues its crimes, its policies and laws to consolidate a colonial and apartheid system."

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