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Laws of war likely ‘consistently violated’ in Israeli strikes on Gaza: UN rights office


The finding follows investigations by the UN human rights office, OHCHR, into six attacks that it has described as “emblematic” of Israeli tactics in the more than eight-month war, involving the suspected use of bombs weighing up to 2,000lbs (920kg) on residential buildings, a school, refugee camps and a market.

These weapons measuring approximately 12 feet (3.4 metres) along with smaller versions were deployed from 9 October to 2 December 2023 causing 218 confirmed deaths, OHCHR noted, adding that the true number of fatalities was likely much higher.

The requirement to select means and methods of warfare that avoid or at the very least minimize to every extent civilian harm appears to have been consistently violated in Israel’s bombing campaign,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. 

Targets by the thousand

His Office’s report cited an Israeli Defense Forces update on 11 November 2023 that the Air Force had “struck over 5,000 targets to eliminate threats in real time” since it began bombing Gaza a month earlier. By that time, the Gazan health authorities had documented the killing of 11,078 Palestinians, with another 2,700 missing and about 27,490 reportedly injured.

Detailing strikes on Ash Shuja neighbourhood in Gaza City, the report’s authors noted that the span of destruction measured approximately 130 metres across, destroying 15 buildings. The extent of the damage to buildings and the craters indicated that approximately nine 2,000lb GBU-31 bombs were used, OHCHR said, adding that at least 60 people were reported killed.

“Israel’s choices of methods and means of conducting hostilities in Gaza since 7 October, including through the extensive use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas, have failed to ensure that they effectively distinguish between civilians and fighters,” the OHCHR report alleged.

“Civilian lives and infrastructure are protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This law lays out the very clear obligations of parties to armed conflicts that make protection of civilians a priority.”

Non-stop sounds of war

Meanwhile in Gaza, people today are forced to shelter amid “unimaginable” destruction, said Ajith Sunghay, Head of OHCHR Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Speaking to journalists via video link from Amman after returning from an assessment mission in multiple locations across the enclave, Mr. Sunghay described how Gazans are “barely surviving” after being repeatedly displaced by violence and IDF evacuation orders. 

“The hospitals are packed to overflowing and the smell is unbearable…sewage is spilling into tents, there is no clean water…If the bombs don’t kill, disease will,” Mr. Sunghay said, after visiting Khan Younis, Rafah and Deir-Al-Balah. 

“The sounds of bombs, guns, drones are constant,” he added. “The sound of war is non-stop day and night. In my 22 years of work at the UN, including in many conflict and post-conflict situations, I’ve never seen such challenges for the UN and human rights and humanitarian aid partners to operate. The destruction is unimaginable.”

The landscape of Khan Younis is now “changed”, the OHCHR officer continued. “It’s full of completely and partially destroyed buildings, infrastructure. People I met told me how they have moved 10 times…they’re barely surviving.”

No respite

The focus of the report is on Israel but it also highlights that Palestinian armed groups have continued to fire indiscriminate projectiles toward Israel. This is contrary to their obligations under international humanitarian law, the OHCHR probe makes clear. 

OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani echoed those concerns while also warning that Israel’s military commanders do not appear to have changed their tactics in Gaza in order to spare civilians, in line with the laws of war. Ms. Shamdasani also referenced statements from high-level Israeli officials including an IDF member quoted earlier in the war as having said: “You wanted hell, you will get hell.”

“We have seen a continued pattern of such attacks,” the OHCHR spokesperson continued, “the types of weapons that were used, the means and the manner in which they were used, coupled with some of the statements that you heard from Israeli officials, give rise to very serious concerns about the compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Israeli investigation call

Ms. Shamdasani also insisted on the need for independent investigations into the attacks covered by the report in order to decide whether they constitute war crimes and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

 “As time passes, it becomes much more difficult to carry out these investigations,” she said. “We call first on the Israeli authorities to take steps to ensure that proper investigations, transparent investigations are held. In the absence of this – and if there is continued impunity – there is a need for international action in this regard as well.” 

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