'Prima facie evidence of war crimes' -- UN on Israel in Gaza

CHRIS MCGREAL - Jan 17 2009 05:00

Israel is facing growing demands from senior United Nations officials and human rights groups for an international war crimes investigation in Gaza over allegations that include the "reckless and indiscriminate" shelling of residential areas and soldiers' use of Palestinian families as human shields.

As the death toll from the Israeli assault on Gaza topped 900 this week, pressure mounted for an independent inquiry into specific incidents, such as the shelling of a UN school turned refugee centre where 40 people died and whether the military tactics used by Israel systematically breached humanitarian law.

The UN's senior human rights body approved a resolution on Monday condemning the Israeli offensive for "massive violations of human rights".

A senior UN source said UN humanitarian agencies were compiling evidence of war crimes and referring it to the "highest levels".

Some human rights activists allege Israeli leaders ordered military casualties be kept low no matter what cost to civilians, and that the strategy contributed to one of the bloodiest Israeli assaults on Palestinian territories.

John Ging, head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said: "It's about accountability [over] the issue of the appropriateness and proportionality of the force used, and the duty of care of civilians. We don't want to join any chorus of passing judgement, but there should be an investigation of every incident where there are concerns there might have been violations in international law."

The Israeli military are accused of:

  • Using powerful shells in civilian areas that the army knew would cause many innocent casualties;

  • Using banned weapons such as phosphorus bombs;

  • Holding Palestinian families as human shields;

  • Attacking medical facilities, including killing 12 ambulance men in marked ambulances; and

  • Killing large numbers of policeman with no military role.
Israel's actions prompted an unusual public rebuke from the International Red Cross after the army had 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 are sceptical that any such inquiry will take place given that Israel has previously blocked similar attempts, with US backing.

'Indiscriminate use of force'
Amnesty International says the dropping of powerful shells on residential streets 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 it will cause civilian fatalities and casualties."

Israel's most prominent human rights organisation, B'Tselem, has written to the attorney general in Jerusalem, Meni Mazuz, to press 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 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 snipers' position. That is the absolute textbook case of human shields."

Although there is growing agreement on the need for an international investigation, the form it would take is less clear-cut. The UN's human rights council can investigate war crimes allegations, 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 unlikely to do so.

Benjamin Rutland, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, said an international investigation of army actions was not justified.

"We don't feel there's any need. 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've breached international law," he said. -- © Guardian News & Media 2009