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25 Jul, 2014

UN Human Rights Council agrees probe into war crimes, U.S. votes “no”

United Nations, UN News Centre, 23 July 2014 – The United Nations Human Rights Council today decided to launch an independent inquiry into purported violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.

Meeting in an emergency session today, the Council adopted a resolution agreeing to send the investigative team by a vote of 29 countries in favour, with 17 abstentions and a sole negative vote by the United States, in which it strongly condemned the failure of Israel to end its prolonged occupation of the area.

The Council condemned in the strongest terms the “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” arising from the Israeli military operations since 13 June, and called for an immediate ceasefire.“The Council further condemned all violence against civilians wherever it occurred, including the killing of two Israeli civilians as a result of rocket fire,” according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).


The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has highlighted the negative impact violence has on children both physically and psychologically. Photo by Shareef Sarhan


In the resolution, the Council also demanded that Israel immediately reopen the occupied Gaza Strip and called upon the international community to provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance and services to the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

Navi Pillay, who opened the special session, said that the current is the third serious escalation of hostilities in the area during the six years that she has been the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As in 2009 and 2012 “children, women, the elderly and persons with disabilities” suffer the most. (Read full text of her statement below).


A boy looks through a schoolbook as he sits in the rubble of a home destroyed during an Israeli air strike on the city of Khan Yunis. Photo: UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0894/El Baba

Kyung-Wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that since the Israeli military launched operation “Protective Edge” on 7 July, over 600 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip and another 3,504 were injured. In addition, 28 Israelis, including the two civilians cited in the Council’s resolution, were killed.

“In Gaza, 443 or 74 per cent of the killed are civilians,” Ms. Kang said. “One third of civilians killed so far are children. One child has been killed each hour in Gaza over the past two days.” (Read full text of his statement below).

Both officials deplored that every seven-year-old girl and boy in Gaza today has lived their entire life under siege, as the most recent fighting is their third major conflict and humanitarian catastrophe, compounding the humanitarian crisis caused by the seven year blockade of the enclave.

“I unequivocally reiterate to all actors in this conflict that civilians must not be targeted,” Ms. Pillay said. “It is imperative that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”

She underscored the importance of applying principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives, as well as proportionality and precautions in attack. “Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the High Commissioner said.

She also called for an end to the culture of impunity and underscored that credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity from earlier escalations of hostilities in Gaza must be properly investigated as “so far, they have not been”.


A young girl waiting to cross into Egypt with her family cries at the Rafah Border Crossing in southern Gaza. Egypt has opened the crossing to allow injured Palestinians to receive treatment. Photo: UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0902/El Baba

Noting that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was currently in the region hoping to bolster support for a ceasefire, Ms. Pillay said she hoped that the parties will respond positively, but cautioned that a lasting peace can only begin with respect for human rights and human dignity, and in the full realization of the right to self-determination.

“All these dead and maimed civilians should weigh heavily on all our consciences. I know that they weigh heavily on mine,” she said, adding that efforts to protect civilians so far have been “abject failures”.

“More powerful entities, such as the Security Council, and individual States with serious leverage over the parties to this dreadful and interminable conflict, must do far more than they have done so far to bring this conflict to an end once and for all,” she urged.

The Human Rights Commissioner had also reiterated her calls for the Israeli blockade on Gaza to be lifted. The blockade, which has destroyed the area’s economy, has resulted in high unemployment rates and a growing dependence on international aid.

The latest round of conflict has disrupted water and sanitation services, as well as electricity, including the Gaza Power Plant which was shut down yesterday.

The Council also heard from Makarim Wibisono, the Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, who spoke on behalf of the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.

He noted that in addition to killing people, the fighting had destroyed homes leaving several thousand families homeless. At the same time, Mr. Wibisono stressed that the right of the Palestinian people to resist occupation could not justify the launching of thousands of rockets and mortars directed against Israeli civilians.

At least 2,000 rockets and mortars have reportedly been fired towards Israel since earlier this month, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Meanwhile, over 2,900 targets in Palestine were struck during the same period, the UN agency confirmed.

The fighting has forced approximately 118,000 Palestinians to seek refuge in 77 schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA’s Director of Legal Affairs, Lance Bartholomeusz, told the Council.

This figure is about 6 per cent of Gaza’s population, and double the peak in UNRWA shelters during the 2008 to 2009 conflict, Mr. Bartholomeusz said.

Civilians in Gaza have no safe place to go with 44 per cent of the land declared a ‘no-go zone’ by the Israeli army, according to OCHA.

The UNRWA facilities are not immune to destruction. At least 18 medical facilities, include five UNRWA health clinics have been hit by Israeli airstrikes and shelling. In addition, at least one school was hit on Monday alone, then a second time on Tuesday when UN humanitarian workers went to survey the damage.

The UN agency is appealing for $115 million and humanitarian agencies are expected to issue a full Flash Appeal in the coming days, Ms. Kagan said.

“The root causes of the conflict must be addressed”

Full text: Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Kyung-Wha Kang statement to the Human Rights Council special session on Gaza

Report from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Published on 23 Jul 2014

Mr. President and distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, thank you very much for convening this special session on the situation in Gaza.

You have heard High Commissioner Pillay’s detailed briefing on the human rights and international humanitarian law elements of the conflict in Gaza and Israel. On behalf of Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, my briefing will focus on the dire and deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the rapidly growing needs resulting from the escalating violence.

Mr. President, since 7 July, over 600 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip and another 3,504 injured following the launch of the Israeli military operation ‘Protective Edge’ in which over 2,900 targets in Palestine were struck. Twenty-eight Israelis – including two civilians – have been killed in fighting with Palestinian militants who have also reportedly fired more than 2,000 rockets and mortars towards Israel.

In Gaza, 443, or 74 per cent of the killed are civilians. One third of civilians killed so far are children. One child has been killed each hour in Gaza over the past two days. Each of these children had a name and a future and a life that was cut horribly short.

Houses have been bombed with people in them, burying entire families under rubble. For example, on 21 July, an Israeli airstrike hit a residential tower in southern Gaza City, killing ten members of the Al Qassas family, all civilians, including six children. Later that same day another Israeli air strike hit a house in central Gaza City, which killed another ten, including three children.

Half of the population of the Gaza neighbourhood of Shujaiya fled their homes amidst heavy Israeli military bombardment this past weekend. At least 120 people were reportedly killed and many further missing – believed to be buried under the rubble in inaccessible areas. Hundreds more are wounded. Of the dead, 26 were children and 15 women.

The absence of safety has amplified the terror and trauma faced by civilians. Families are taking the heart-wrenching decision to split to different locations – mother and son to one; father and daughter to another – hoping to maximise the chance one part of the family survives. The fear, despair and hopelessness of the parents having to make such a decision is beyond imagination.

Mr. President, the scope of displacement is immense. Nearly 118,000 are seeking shelter in 80 UNRWA facilities. This is more than double those sheltered by UNRWA during the three-week long Israeli Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009. Elsewhere in Gaza, tens of thousands of people, reportedly, have also sought refuge wherever they can, including in government schools and buildings, open spaces, hospital grounds and unfinished buildings. Others have been taken in by relatives and neighbours. Hundreds more have sought refuge in the compound of Shifa Hospital, the main medical facility in the Gaza Strip, adding to the burden of overwhelmed doctors and medical staff. As the ground operations continue these figures are expected to grow.

Shelters are overwhelmed and overcrowded. This, coupled with the lack of access of humanitarian staff and the delivery of aid, has caused further hardship to the displaced.

Eight UNRWA schools in the north have not been reached for two consecutive days due to fighting. Water supply has been particularly challenging, with people receiving as little as three litres per day; just enough to survive but not sufficient for basic hygiene and sanitation.

Mr. President, in the past few days Israeli forces have delivered additional warnings to large population centres in the middle and southern areas of Gaza, warning them to move to safer locations. However, civilians in Gaza have no safe place to go as 44 per cent of the land has been declared a ‘no-go zone’ by the Israeli army.

Even UN facilities and hospitals are not immune from destruction. On Monday, an UNRWA school in Maghazi that served as a shelter for 300 people was hit. Yesterday, when a team visited the site to survey the damage, the school was again shelled, seriously endangering the lives of UN humanitarian workers and displaced civilians.

At least 18 medical facilities, including 5 UNRWA health clinics, have been hit by airstrikes and shelling since the fighting began. An Israeli airstrike on the Al Aqsa Hospital on Monday killed three people and injured over 40. Hospitals are already overwhelmed by the rapid influx of injured and the severity of wounds. They are short staffed and lack medicine, equipment, clean water and power. Twenty-six Palestinian Red Crescent workers have been injured.

Mr. President, every seven-year-old girl and boy in the Gaza Strip today has lived their entire life under siege. This is their third major conflict and humanitarian catastrophe compounding the humanitarian crisis caused by the seven years of blockade.

The blockade has destroyed Gaza’s economy, with high unemployment rates and growing dependence on international assistance. Food insecurity remains a grave concern with the UN feeding 67 per cent of the population.

The already poor basic infrastructure has also been severely affected by this round of conflict. Today, 1.2 million people in Gaza have had water and sanitation services cut or severely disrupted. Electricity is down to just four hours a day. Initial reports indicate that the Gaza Power Plant has been shut down following several strikes yesterday. This will further reduce what little electricity is available.

Mr. President, United Nations organisations and NGO partners are leading the humanitarian effort in the Gaza Strip. My colleague from UNRWA will update you on the extraordinary efforts of its thousands of staff on the ground in Gaza. In addition, WFP continues to deliver food to people in shelters, support logistics, and is working with UNRWA on humanitarian airlifts from Dubai. UNICEF and partners are procuring essential paediatric drugs for hospitals and health facilities and child protection teams are helping children and their caregivers cope with the psychological distress. WHO is urgently facilitating the transfer of medical supplies to hospitals including fluids and surgical kits.

But international support for these efforts is urgently needed. UNRWA has already appealed for US$115 million and humanitarian agencies will be issuing a full Flash Appeal in the coming days. I urge your Governments to mobilise funding urgently to support our efforts.

Mr. President, the fighting must stop. A lasting ceasefire is needed for the people of Gaza and Israel. To truly break this devastating cycle of violence, as the Secretary-General has said, the root causes of the conflict must be addressed.


Two children stand in front of a house that police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Maghazi refugee camp in Center Gaza Strip. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

While this is being negotiated, we urgently need humanitarian cease-fires so that aid workers can get supplies into areas where people are desperate for help. Humanitarians and service providers must be able to conduct search and rescue to save anyone still alive under rubble, deliver food and water, repair essential infrastructure such as water, sewage and electricity, rescue the injured, and perform the grisly task of retrieving the dead.

These pauses are also critical to allow civilians to seek safer shelter and to allow people to restock on basic supplies of food and water.

Much more must also be done to protect civilians. The expansion of hostilities into built up areas and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is deeply concerning. We know from experience that the use of such weapons gives rise to a predictable pattern of death, injury, displacement and damage or destruction of essential infrastructure.

Attacks on medical facilities and staff must stop. Such action is completely unacceptable and is a flagrant violation of international law. The neutrality and inviolability of UN premises must also be respected. The use of UNRWA schools for storing rockets by armed groups in Gaza is an unacceptable violation of international humanitarian law.

Mr. President, the seven-year-old children in Gaza deserve to know more than war and siege, more than helplessness and the entrapment that surround them. But this will not happen unless the war stops for good, the blockade is liftet and the international community and the parties to the conflict live up to their obligations.

All these dead and maimed civilians should weigh heavily on all our consciences

Full text: Statement by Navi Pillay, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human Rights Council 21st Special Session: Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, 23 July 2014

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

The situation in the occupied Gaza Strip is critical for the civilians living there and requires your urgent attention. Since Israel announced its military operation “Protective Edge” on 7 July, Gaza has been subjected to daily intensive bombardment from the air, land and sea, employing well over 2,100 air strikes alone. The hostilities have resulted in the deaths of more than 600 Palestinians, including at least 147 children and 74 women.

This is the third serious escalation of hostilities in my six years as High Commissioner. As we saw during the two previous crises in 2009 and 2012, it is innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip, including children, women, the elderly and persons with disabilities, who are suffering the most.

According to preliminary UN figures, around 74 percent of those killed so far were civilians, and thousands more have been injured. Those numbers have climbed dramatically since Israel’s ground operations began on 17 July.

Hundreds of homes and other civilian buildings, such as schools, have been destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza, and more than 140,000 Palestinians have been displaced as a result.

Two Israeli civilians have also lost their lives and between 17 and 32 others have been reported injured as a result of rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza, and 27 Israeli soldiers have been killed during military operations in Gaza.

As we speak, the indiscriminate firing by Hamas and other armed groups of more than 2,900 rockets, as well as mortars, from Gaza continues to endanger the lives of civilians in Israel. I have repeatedly condemned such indiscriminate attacks in the past. I do so again today.

I further emphasise that it is unacceptable to locate military assets in densely populated areas or to launch attacks from such areas. However, international law is clear: the actions of one party do not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law.

Mr. President,

Civilian homes are not legitimate targets unless they are being used for, or contribute to, military purposes at the time in question. In case of doubt, civilian homes are presumed not to be legitimate targets. Even where a home is identified as being used for military purposes, any attack must be proportionate, offer a definite military advantage in the prevailing circumstances at the time, and precautions must be taken.

I unequivocally reiterate to all actors in this conflict that civilians must not be targeted. It is imperative that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This entails applying the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives; proportionality; and precautions in attack. Respect for the right to life of civilians, including children, should be a foremost consideration. Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mr. President,

Israel has stated that it has alerted Gazans before conducting strikes, including by using telephones, text messages and so-called warning “roof knocks,” using relatively light munitions. Even if Israel has attempted to warn civilians to, for example, leave their homes or conducted an evacuation before an attack, this does not release Israel from its obligations under international humanitarian law. Any warning for civilians must meet with the requirements of international law, including that this warning be clear, credible and allows sufficient time for people to react to it.

A number of incidents, along with the high number of civilian deaths, belies the claim that all necessary precautions are being taken to protect civilian lives. Roof-knocking itself is costing lives, with one projectile – apparently delivered from a drone – reported to have pierced a 20-centimetre concrete roof, killing three children.

People – particularly the elderly, sick and those with disabilities – are not given sufficient time to scramble out of their homes. When they do manage to run out into the street, there is nowhere to hide and no way of knowing where the next shell or missile will land.

Some eminent human rights defenders whom I spoke to inside Gaza yesterday asked for “the rule of law, not rule of the jungle”, adding that they have no peace, no security and no human rights. With regard to the firing of rockets by armed groups from densely populated areas, they said – and I quote – “We do not choose our neighbours.”

The disregard for international humanitarian law and for the right to life, was shockingly evident for all to see in the apparent targeting on 16 July of seven children playing on a Gaza beach. Credible reports gathered by my Office in Gaza indicate that the children were hit first by an Israeli air-strike, and then by naval shelling. All seven were hit. Four of them, – aged between 9 and 11, from the same Bakr family – were killed. These children were clearly civilians taking no part in hostilities.

The following day, three more children were killed and two others wounded, reportedly by a drone missile, in the Al-Sabra area of Gaza city while they were playing on the roof of their home as their parents prepared the daily Ramadan iftar meal.

These are only a few of the cases in which a total of 147 children have been killed in Gaza over the past 16 days. They had a right to life just like children in any other country. Their killings raise concerns about respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack.

Israeli children, and their parents and other civilians, also have a right to live without the constant fear that a rocket fired from Gaza may land on their houses or their schools, killing or injuring them. Once again, the principles of distinction and precaution are clearly not being observed during such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.

Mr President,

On 13 July, an Israeli strike reportedly killed two women in wheelchairs and injured four other patients in a centre for persons with disabilities in Beit Lahiya.

In the area of al-Shuja’iya, the full extent of casualties and damage to property is still unclear due to the continuous military ground offensive. Based on preliminary information gathered by my office in Gaza, on 20 July, a house was hit by several artillery shells at 6:00 a.m., killing seven members of a single family (including four women and two children) and one neighbour, who had sought refuge in the house. Another five family members, including three children, were injured.

In another case, five people were still missing as of 21 July, in a house targeted in an airstrike, and are believed to be buried under the rubble. My staff are continuing to document several other cases, in which family residences were destroyed with reported loss of civilian life, and in which preliminary indications suggest not even a single member of an armed group was present.

Then, just two days ago, on 21 July, shells hit the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah reportedly killing at least three people and wounding dozens of others, including doctors.

These are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes. Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated

Blockade and impact of repeated military hostilities

The current conflict and destruction comes at a time when Gaza is still recovering from repeated escalations of hostilities with Israel. The crippling effects of the Israeli blockade and other measures linked to the Israeli occupation of Gaza suppress the ability of the people to go about their daily lives and prevent them from rebuilding their lives and communities after repeated military operations.

I reiterate my numerous calls for this blockade to be lifted once and for all.

This latest assault has wreaked further damage to Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities. Fuel and medicine are in critically short supply, and electricity is reduced to a few hours a day, affecting ordinary households as well as compromising the ability of hospitals to treat the many injured, and to care for the most vulnerable people.

Situation in the West Bank

Mr President,

The current situation in Gaza has overshadowed the backdrop of heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. On 12 June, three Israeli teenagers went missing near Hebron, and were subsequently found murdered. Since then, more than 1,200 Palestinians have reportedly been arrested with some placed in administrative detention; Israel has carried out extensive operations where homes and offices have been raided and property damaged; the Israeli authorities have also resumed a policy of carrying out punitive house demolitions, and nine Palestinians have been killed in incidents involving Israeli security forces, raising serious concerns of excessive use of force, especially in the context of demonstrations against the military operation in Gaza.

In addition, I am concerned about reports of a significant rise in incitement to violence against Palestinians, including through social media. On 2 July, a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive in Jerusalem amidst an atmosphere of revenge and incitement to violence.

The killings of all four teenage boys were abhorrent and those responsible must be brought to justice. However, only those responsible for these criminal acts can legitimately be punished. Individuals may not be punished for offences they have not personally committed or be made subject to collective penalties.

Context of protracted occupation

Mr President,

Israel holds obligations as an Occupying Power. For Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the current reality is not just one of repeated conflict but also one of protracted occupation, with insecurity and a constant daily struggle for human rights, in particular the right to self-determination. In Gaza, the blockade and Access Restricted Areas continue to undermine the human rights of the population. In the West Bank, ever expanding illegal Israeli settlements; settler violence; demolitions of Palestinian homes; the Wall and its associated regime; excessive use of force; and large scale detentions of Palestinians are some of the ongoing, routine abuses and human rights violations committed against the occupied population.

The scenes we witness from afar, here in Geneva or around the world, via the 24-hour news channels and social media, provide only brief glimpses of the daily reality of conflict for Palestinians and for Israelis.

A seven-year old Palestinian child in Gaza has never known life outside occupation and is already living through her or his third experience of a major Israeli military operation, including the so-called operations ‘Cast Lead’ in 2009 and ‘Pillar of Defence’ in 2012, with all the unimaginable death, destruction, terror and the life-long consequences that they inflicted.

Both Palestinians and Israelis deserve better than a life of chronic insecurity and recurring escalation in hostilities.

Accountability and the right to self-determination

The continued failure to properly ensure accountability on both sides following earlier escalations of hostilities in Gaza is of serious concern. The culture of impunity for alleged violations of international law invites further transgressions and the victims of the past become victims again. War crimes and crimes against humanity are two of the most serious types of crimes in existence, and credible allegations that they have been committed must be properly investigated. So far, they have not been.

According to local human rights groups, despite numerous allegations of serious international crimes, only four Israeli soldiers have been prosecuted and convicted for three incidents that occurred during Operation ‘Cast Lead’. One of the convictions was for stealing a credit card. And the other three soldiers, convicted of more serious crimes, received extraordinarily light sentences. In April 2013, the Military Advocate General issued a public document indicating that it found no basis for opening criminal investigations into approximately 65 incidents involving the Israel Defense Force during the 2012 operation known as ‘Pillar of Defence’.

With respect to rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, information available also indicates that no adequate measures have been taken to carry out effective investigations into alleged violations.

Mr President,

I, and my predecessors and successors as High Commissioner for Human Rights, can only offer the facts, the law, and common sense. This we have done, and — I am sure — will continue to do, however much we are criticized for it.

We, as the International Community, the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, States, and as human beings, are obliged to do everything in our power to protect all civilians and ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled worldwide.

In Israel and Palestine, the politics of conflict, peace and security are constantly leading to the downgrading, or setting aside, of the importance of binding international human rights law and international humanitarian law. International law is not negotiable. No individual or state can be considered exempt, if they violate the law.

I hope that the parties will respond positively to the visit of the Secretary-General to the region and his call for an immediate ceasefire. But what must we finally do to move beyond a ceasefire that will inevitably be broken again in two or three years, leading to yet more dead civilian men, women and children? Accountability is the first step towards ensuring that the cycle of human rights violations and impunity is brought to an end. A lasting peace can only begin with respect for human rights and human dignity on both sides, and ultimately, in the full realisation of the right to self-determination.

All these dead and maimed civilians should weigh heavily on all our consciences. I know that they weigh heavily on mine. All our efforts to protect them have been abject failures. More powerful entities, such as the Security Council, and individual States with serious leverage over the parties to this dreadful and interminable conflict, must do far more than they have done so far to bring this conflict to an end once and for all.

Thank you.