By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
Report also censures Hamas but accuses Israelis of punishing entire population of the Palestinian Strip
Israel targeted â€œthe people of Gaza as a wholeâ€ in the three-week military operation which is estimated to have killed more than 1,300 Palestinians at the beginning of this year, according to a UN-commissioned report published yesterday.
A UN fact-finding mission led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone said Israel should face prosecution by the International Criminal Court unless it opened independent investigations of what the report said were repeated violations of international law, â€œpossible war crimes and crimes against humanityâ€ during the operation.
Using by far the strongest language of any of the numerous reports criticizing Operation Cast Lead, the UN mission, which interviewed victims, witnesses and others in Gaza and Geneva this summer, says that, while Israel had portrayed the war as self-defense in response to Hamas rocket attacks, it â€œconsiders the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole.
â€œIn this respect the operations were in furtherance of an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience and for its apparent support for Hamas, and possibly with the intent of forcing a change in such support,â€ the report said.
The 575-page document presented to yesterdayâ€™s session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was swiftly denounced by Israel. The foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the UN mission had â€œdealt a huge blow to governments seeking to defend their citizens from terrorâ€, and that its conclusions were â€œso disconnected with realities on the ground that one cannot but wonder on which planet was the Gaza Strip they visitedâ€.
The Gaza war began on 27 December 2008 and ended on 18 January 2009.
The UN report found that the statements of military and political leaders in Israel before and during the operation indicated that they intended the use of â€œdisproportionate forceâ€, aimed not only at the enemy but also at the â€œsupporting infrastructureâ€. The mission adds: â€œIn practice this appears to have meant the civilian population.â€
The mission also had harsh conclusions about Hamas and other armed groups, acknowledging that rocket and mortar attacks have caused terror in southern Israel, and saying that, where such attacks were launched into civilians areas, they would â€œconstitute war crimesâ€ and â€œmay amount to crimes against humanityâ€.
It also condemned the extrajudicial killings, detention and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees by the Hamas regime in Gaza – as well as by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – and called for the release on humanitarian grounds of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal abducted by Gaza militants in June 2006.
While the Israeli government refused to co-operate with the inquiry – or allow the UN team into Israel – on the ground that the team would beâ€one-sidedâ€, Corporal Shalitâ€™s father, Noam, was among those Israeli citizens who flew to Geneva to give evidence.
That said, the greater part of the report – and its strongest language – is reserved for Israelâ€™s conduct during the operation. Apart from the unprecedented death toll, the report says that â€œthe destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a systematic policy by the Israeli armed forcesâ€. The purpose was not to avert a military threat, but â€œto make the daily process of living and dignified living more difficult for the civilian populationâ€.
The report also says that vandalism of houses by some soldiers and â€œthe graffiti on the walls, the obscenities and often racist slogans constituted an overall image of humiliation and dehumanization of the Palestinian populationâ€.
Amid a detailed examination of most of the major incidents of the war – albeit one carried out five months after it took place – it says that:
* The first bombing attack on Day One of the operation, when children were going home from school, â€œappears to have been calculated to cause the greatest disruption and widespread panicâ€.
* The firing of white phosphorus shells at the UN Relief and Works Agency compound was â€œcompounded by reckless regard of the consequencesâ€, and the use of high explosive artillery at the al-Quds hospitals were violations of Articles 18 and 19 of the Geneva Convention. It says that warnings issued by Israel to the civilian population â€œcannot be considered as sufficiently effectiveâ€ under the convention.
* On the attack in the vicinity of the al-Fakhoura school where at least 35 Palestinians were killed, Israeli forces launched an attack where a â€œreasonable commanderâ€ would have considered military advantage was outweighed by the risk to civilian life. Under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the civilians had their right to life forfeited. And while some of the 99 policemen killed in incidents surveyed by the team may have been members of armed groups, others who were not also had their right to life violated.
* The inquiry team also says that a number of Palestinians were used as human shields – itself a violation of the ICCPR – including Majdi Abed Rabbo, whose complaints about being so used were first aired in The Independent. The report asserts that the use of human shields constitutes a â€œwar crime under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Courtâ€.