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Palestinians welcome new UN commission to investigate war crimes during Gaza conflict

August 12, 2014
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [UN] [investigations] [Hamas] [Collective Punishment]

The United Nations appointed experts on Monday to a commission of inquiry into possible human rights violations and war crimes committed by both Israel and Palestinian factions during the current offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Canadian professor of international law, William Schabas, will lead the team. Other members include Doudou Diene, a U.N. human rights expert from Senegal. Amal Alamuddin, a British-Lebanese lawyer, turned down the offer to participate in the commission because of other ongoing commitments.

By Tuesday afternoon, it was unclear who would replace Alamuddin.

According to a statement from the president of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the mandate of the panel is “to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June, 2014.”

Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank on June 12 to find three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, who were found murdered more than two weeks later in a village outside of Hebron. Israel blamed Hamas for the abduction of the teens and arrested at least 335 of the organization’s members.

In protest against Israel’s crackdown, Palestinian factions started firing rockets at Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. On July 8, Israel responded by launching its offensive Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

The panel has been directed to hand in its report to the UNHRC by March 2015. 

Israel: Human Rights Council a “kangaroo court”

Hamas welcomed the formation of an investigation committee and hoped that it would start its work as soon as possible, according to Sami Abu Zuhri, the organization’s spokesperson in Gaza.

Israel immediately dismissed the panel, with Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor claiming that the Human Rights Council “had long ago turned into the 'terrorist rights council’ and a kangaroo court, whose 'investigations’ are pre-determined.”

Schabas, the leader of the committee, is known to be highly critical against Israel, and has previously called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to put both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres on trial.

During the two weeks before the nomination of the panel’s members, Israel asked from its allies such as the United States, Germany, and Britain that they make sure the commission is 'more balanced.’ Now, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has said it could use the group’s impartiality to delegitimize it internationally.

Navi Pillay, the top UN human rights official, said on July 31 that both sides have violated international law during the ongoing war in Gaza. According to her, Israel has breached the Geneva Conventions by attacking homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant, and UN properties.

Hamas has violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets indiscriminately toward Israel, including civilian targets. Additionally, Hamas has been criticized for storing rockets in or near schools and hospitals, an internationally recognized war crime.

Almost no prosecutions after 2008-2009 Gaza war

During a UN investigation into possible war crimes committed in the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel refused to cooperate with the investigators and prevented their travel to the Gaza Strip through Israel. In addition, it did not submit evidence to the inquiring commission, headed by judge Richard Goldstone.

While accusing both Hamas and Israel of war crimes, the Goldstone report made a strong case against Israel and accused it of collectively punishing Gazans by imposing a blockade that “isolates” and “deprives” the small enclave’s steadily growing population. If the parties failed to investigate the accusations, the commission threatened they could be taken to the International Criminal Court.

This never happened. Hamas commanders faced no prosecution, and even though Israel examined accusations against 400 of its soldiers, only two were put on trial. One of them was sentenced to seven months in prison for stealing a credit card.

Two years later, Goldstone himself revoked the claim that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians, which formed at least half of the over 1,400 Palestinian victims during the conflict.

After the Israeli operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012, the country’s Military Advocate-General’s Office (MAG) decided not to open a criminal investigation into any of the 65 cases it reviewed.

Human rights groups urge Palestine to join ICC

This time, the legal aftermath of the conflict could be different if Palestine signs the Rome Statute and thus ratifies the treaty of International Criminal Court (ICC).

Member states of the ICC have the right to ask the prosecutor to look into international crimes committed on its territory or by its people. After the General Assembly granted Palestine the status of a non-member observer state in 2012, it now has the ability to sign on to the treaty.

Also the UN Security Council could refer the case to the prosecutor, but this would be unlikely as the United States, a close ally of Israel and a permanent member of the Security Council, has the right to veto such decisions.

Several human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join the ICC. Israel, the United States, France, and Britain oppose the move. 

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