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3 Takeaways from the UN’s Gaza Report

A UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry dispatched to investigate alleged human rights violations stemming from last year’s conflict in Gaza and Israel released a long awaited report today. For those who follow this issue in particular or international human rights issues more generally, here are three key takeaways from the just-released report.

1) The report cites very specific incidents in which the Israeli Defense Forces and Militants in Gaza may have been responsible for human rights violations.

The report investigated hundreds of incidents in which civilians were killed, interviewing victims and their families. It’s clear that the report takes great pains to be even handed, offering numerous examples of how civilians on both sides have suffered.  The result is a heartbreaking account of how civilians suffered the most during this conflict.

Here are two such examples from the report:

22 August mortar attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz:  On 22 August 2014, Daniel Tregerman, aged 4, was killed by a mortar shell in his home at Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the Sha’ar Hanegev Region about 2 km from the Gaza Green Line. The boy was playing with his two younger siblings inside the house when a mortar struck the family car and spread shrapnel that killed Daniel. His mother told the commission that the family had left the kibbutz one day before the start of Operation “Protective Edge” because rockets had been fired from Gaza over the previous two weeks. On 21 August, the family had returned to the kibbutz because they believed that the violence was over, although they said their, “suitcases remained ready because [they] knew that Hamas could break the ceasefire at any time”. As the explosion occurred only three seconds after the siren warning, the parents who had taken the two younger siblings to the safe room had no time to take Daniel with them.

77. In a media interview, Daniel’s father said that his wife had wanted him to call for help but he knew that their son had already died. In his words, “there was no need for anyone to come […]. We are trying to leave this inferno and we are leaving Daniel behind.” The father realized later that he himself was injured by shrapnel in the legs. Daniel’s mother told the commission that on the same day her son died another woman was injured by a Qassam rocket in the same kibbutz. Daniel’s mother described the 2014 hostilities as more violent than previous conflicts, particularly as the civilian population was under a persistent threat of rocket and tunnel attacks. She called for an end to the violence, which continues to cause suffering to mothers on both sides:

We the people living in Israel want to live in peace and not under threat of terrorism. I would like our neighbours in Gaza to have a good and happy life and their children to go to school, and they can do this if they do not live under terrorism.”  

78. Israeli media sources report that over 90 rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza into Israel on 22 August and sirens sounded across southern and central Israel as a barrage of rockets was launched in the late afternoon. According to OCHA, most of these rockets were fired indiscriminately and they fell in open areas or were intercepted by the Iron Dome System. According to a media report of 26 August, the Al Qassam Brigades stated that they had targeted the IDF’s chief of staff, Benny Gantz, in Nahal Oz on Friday 22nd August. The Al Qassam Brigades had received information that a convoy including a senior Israeli officer would arrive and they believed it would be Benny Gantz and therefore directed mortar and rocket-propelled grenades at the area around the convoy. The presence of Benny Gantz at Nahal Oz during the attack was confirmed and made public in Israeli media reports on 23 August. According to a media article published on 24 August, Israeli security forces suspected that “Hamas has succeeded in identifying in a few incidents when and where VIP visits occur. On several such occasions, Hamas has launched rockets and fired mortar shells on the southern Kibbutzim during these visits.” Based on the information available, the commission cannot exclude that the intended target of the tragic attack of 22 August on Kibbutz Nahal Oz was the IDF Chief of Staff.

Abu Jabr family home

132. On 29 July at 12.30 a.m., a bomb was launched on the Abu Jabr family home in the Al Buraij refugee camp. Nineteen people were killed and seven injured. Seventeen family members inside the house died including 6 children aged between one and four, and six women, one of whom was pregnant. Two other people who were visiting that evening with a member of the Abu Jabr family were killed as well. Out of the 7 persons injured 3 were children and 4 were women. The house was completely destroyed as a result of the attack. According to B’Tselem and witnesses interviewed by the commission, several different parts of Al Buraij camp were attacked during that night.

133. The Abu Jabr house is located on Abu Al Sa’ud Street in the Deir al Balah Governorate in central Gaza Strip. The 120 m2 house had two floors and was comprised of several apartments belonging to members of the Abu Jabr family.

134. The commission interviewed a witness whose father and uncles owned the building and who arrived at the scene 15 minutes after the attack. Upon arrival he followed the traces of smoke and went in to look for his parents, his brother and the rest of his family. He described a 7-meter deep hole where the house had been, leaving only rubble and cement blocks piled on top of each other. The witness recounted how he began to search for survivors and how he later found out that his daughter and wife were killed in the attack. What he saw was “beyond imagination”:

I found the decapitated bodies of my uncle and daughter. My cousin was alive but died on the way to hospital. Another cousin’s body was found sliced in two. We had ten corpses in the first ambulances. No other survivors were found. […] After having removed the cement I identified my cousin Dina’s body. What I witnessed was horrible. She was 9 months pregnant and she had come from her home to her parents’ house to have her baby. We could not imagine that she had passed away. Her stomach was ripped open and the unborn baby was lying there with the skull shattered. We kept searching for other corpses and found my uncle’s wife. We had great difficulty removing all the pieces of cement from her body.

135. The witness managed to extract some of the survivors from the ruins. Most of the family members’ bodies had been cut into pieces or pulverized by the attack. The injured and dead were brought to Al Aqsa hospital. Upon arrival the witness realized that some family members were missing. He said that, to his knowledge, the area was residential and inhabited mainly by women and children. He was not aware of the family’s having received any warnings to evacuate. He said that at times inhabitants are warned by small rockets but not his family. These accounts, including the absence of “roof-knock” warnings, are supported by interviews conducted by B’Tselem with witnesses who were present in the proximity of the house during the attack.

136. Photos submitted to the commission by different sources, including of children showing one boy with fractures and serious shrapnel and burn injuries, indicate that the house was completely destroyed. On the basis of an analysis of pictures and testimonies, the commission concluded that the house was most likely levelled by the impact of either a GBU31 JDAM equipped 2000lb bomb or a GBU32 JDAM equipped 1000lb bomb.

2) We don’t Yet Know How this Report Will Be Used.

The job of the Commission of Inquiry is done. Now, it is up to the international community — specifically, the Human Rights Council, Security Council and International Criminal Court — to decide what to do with it. The previous investigation of alleged crimes in 2009 Gaza resulted in a Human Rights Council resolution that recommended the Security Council grant the International Criminal Court the jurisdiction to launch an investigation.  Nothing came of that recommendation because the Security Council declined to take up the matter.

Since then, Palestine has acceded to the treaty that created the ICC, potentially giving the ICC jurisdiction to investigate crimes in the Occupied Territories, including the West Bank and Gaza, without a referral from the Security Council. In January, the ICC opened a preliminary investigation–which is more of a formality intended to decide whether certain criteria are met to launch an actual investigation. It is up to the ICC to decide whether or not to let this UN report inform whether or not continue to investigate. Chances are the office of the prosecutor will take note of this report. But the extent to which it might guide any decisions on whether or not to pursue formal charges is, at this point, unclear.

3) This report shows the value of the Human Rights Council

This report is a product of the Human Rights Council, which created this investigation and appointed the commission of inquiry led by former New York State supreme court justice by Mary McGowan Davis. The basic function of these commissions of inquiry are to create an independent, neutral fact base around which the international community can form policies and make decisions. These quotes from McGowan Davis are telling

The most the commission could hope for, Ms. McGowan Davis said, was to “push the ball of justice further down the field,” and persuade governments to address “the crying need” for changes in policies regarding the use of weapons with a wide-area effect in densely populated areas. She said the commission also wanted governments to hold accountable those who did not give meticulous attention to protecting the lives of civilians in the conduct of hostilities.

Despite the unclear future of this report, it provides the clearest and most dispassionate accounting of the effects of the 2014 conflict on civilians who bore the brunt of the violence. There may not be accountability for these alleged crimes anytime soon, but the fact of this report’s existence means that the underlying rights violations have not been brushed over by the international community.