First published by the Middle East Monitor on 5/3/2019
I wrote recently about an EU report on the growth of illegal Israeli settlements and argued that the EU was diligent in documenting Israel’s-breaches of international law but that it has singularly failed to bring it to account, even when it has demolished EU-funded projects.
A more recent report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigated the actions of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) at the nominal border with Gaza since 30 March last year, which marked the beginning of the Great March of Return protests. For almost 50 weeks, Israeli snipers have gunned down, with deliberate, chilling precision, Palestinian men, women and children.
The “Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory – A/HRC/40/74” acknowledges that the peaceful protests “were civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims.” The protesters asked to be allowed to return to the homes from which they have been expelled from 1948 onwards, and for a lifting of the siege on Gaza. Instead of meeting their peaceful and legitimate demands from the outset, Israel has killed over 200 Palestinians, including journalists and medics, and maimed dozens of young men, who now have to face life as amputees, rather than sportsmen.
The irony here is that Israel complained about Malaysia’s decision to ban the Israeli Paralympics team from competing in the country, while the IDF was making its own sickening contribution to future Palestinian Paralympics teams.
The UNHRC’s report makes for gruesome reading. Israeli soldiers are accused of “intentionally firing on civilians, who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat.” The report warns that, “These serious human rights and humanitarian law violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.”
Israel’s reaction was predictable and follows a long line of denial and smearing of any report which accuses it of wrongdoing. According to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, “This report was born in sin, in a politically biased, one-sided resolution that determined the outcome before the investigation even started.” He went on to lay the blame on Hamas: “[Hamas] has declared war on Israel and calls to kill Jews. Hamas is orchestrating the attacks and using civilians in Gaza as human weapons to assault Israel and Israeli civilians. Hamas exploits the civilians in Gaza as human shields for terrorists.” As usual when such allegations are made, no evidence is produced to back them up, nor is the legitimate right to resist military occupation ever mentioned.
The spokesman went on to smear the UNHRC and the report’s three authors: “The HRC becomes an accomplice of a terrorist organisation, supporting Hamas’s aggression against Israel and the oppression of the people of Gaza.” The three individuals, he alleged, lack any understanding in security matters, without a relevant professional background.
Israel’s apologists came out in force to condemn the report, including US President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt. “This COI report is another manifestation of the UNHRC’s clear bias against Israel,” he tweeted, “which remains the only country that the Council dedicates an entire standing agenda item to targeting.”
Such condemnation of investigations into Israel’s crimes and smearing of investigation teams and the bodies that form them is not new. The UNHRC set up an investigation into Israel’s 2014 military offensive against the Gaza Strip which lasted for 50 days, resulting in over 2,000 Palestinians being killed and causing extensive destruction.
The Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict – A/HRC/29/52accused both Hamas and Israel of committing war crimes. “Israel does not commit war crimes,” claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he rejected the report. “Israel defends itself against a terrorist organisation that calls for its destruction and carries out many war crimes.” He accused the commission of being “notoriously biased” against Israel.
Following an escalation of violence in November 2012, a UN report criticised armed Palestinian groups and the IDF. The latter, it insisted, “did not consistently uphold the basic principles of conduct of hostilities, namely, the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions.” The report documented a number of cases, including one which took place on 18 November, in which an Israeli air strike targeted without prior warning a three-storey house belonging to the Al-Dalou family in Al-Nasser neighbourhood, in central Gaza City. The strike killed 12 people, including five children and four women. Again, Israel brushed aside criticism and no individual Israeli was held accountable.
Following the 2008/9 Israeli military offensive on Gaza, the UN published the Goldstone Report on the devastating events which took place between 27 December 2008 and 17 January 2009 and which resulted in over 1,300 Palestinians being killed. The report accused both Israel and Palestinian armed groups of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Israel’s reaction was predictable. The Foreign Ministry said that, “Israel rejects the one-sided resolution adopted in Geneva by the UN human rights council and calls upon all responsible states to reject it as well… [The resolution] provides encouragement for terrorist organisations worldwide and undermines global peace.” It also accused the UNHRC of anti-Israel bias.
Israel’s siege and attack on the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, which lasted for 10 days and killed dozens if not hundreds of Palestinians (the figures are disputed) again brought accusations of war crimes against Israel. The Israeli government refused to allow a UN team to carry out a field investigation, resulting in the UN producing a report based on available evidence. “In sum, the Israeli occupying forces have, without a doubt, committed serious violations of international humanitarian law,” the report concluded. “Also, without a doubt, war crimes, including grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, have been committed by Israel, the occupying Power, in several Palestinian cities, including in the Jenin refugee camp.” However, the report disputed the Palestinian claim of a massacre, a decision which was welcomed by the Israeli government. Furthermore, the report was judged as “seriously flawed” by human rights organisations and Britain’s Independent newspaper, which were able to corroborate many of the allegations against the occupation state. No Israeli has ever been held accountable for any violations.
It is possible to go back further in time to another Israeli atrocity to demonstrate the lack of accountability for crimes committed by the IDF. On 18 April 1996, Israeli forces shelled a UN compound in Qana, in Southern Lebanon, where 800 Lebanese civilians had taken refuge; 106 people were killed in the attack. Israel claimed that this was due to technical issues rather than deliberate targeting of a UN facility. However, the subsequent UN investigation concluded, “While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.” The UN also found that “Contrary to repeated denials, two Israeli helicopters and a remotely piloted vehicle were present in the Qana area at the time of the shelling.” Amnesty International called for an independent investigation arguing, “It is not enough that the Israeli army investigates themselves. Israel has a history of either not investigating civilian deaths, or conducting similarly flawed inquiries.”
Now here we are, 23 years on and the UN’s most recent report again calls on Israel to investigate its own crimes, even though everyone knows that Israel never finds its own people guilty; always dismisses reports carried out by independent investigators as biased and one-sided; denies entry to the investigation teams; and refuses to cooperate. It claims to apply the highest standards of self-regulation but no one has ever been held fully accountable for any crimes, despite the thousands of deaths, the tens of thousands of injuries and the tens of thousands of homes that have been destroyed by Israelis since Qana, never mind the other massacres which have occurred since 1948.
It is time for Israel to be held to account for its actions, for the sake of those who have suffered at its hands. If international law is to have any credibility at all, we need to ensure that all UN member states pay due respect to human rights and the quest for justice through due legal process.