U.N. report on Gaza: Will anyone listen this time?

The strength of the new report on last summer’s war in Gaza is that its findings are almost too obvious

Yossi Mekelberg

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Tragically, the strength of the new report on last summer’s war in Gaza by the Commission of the U.N. Human Rights Council is that its findings are almost too obvious, even banal. It summarizes and highlights what most already knew, but nevertheless, puts it into a solid and convincing legal framework. In the age of social media and 24 hour news, the findings of this report mainly confirm what we saw and heard in horror during the 50 days of senseless violence last summer. Bloodshed that at best brought about some very limited tactical gains but did nothing to ensure any long term strategic aims. The appointment of the independent commission of inquiry by the Human Rights Council faced objections from the Israelis and Hamas from the outset and was mired by controversy following the resignation of Professor Schabs, who was first selected to chair it. However, the final report attempts to justify both sides, especially Israel’s, vociferous opposition to this commission, as it leaves the warring sides under a dark cloud of allegations of international humanitarian law violations and war crimes. Dealing with culprits that are immersed in their own narratives as a justification for committing atrocities, in complete disregard of international legal or moral norms, made an investigation into these abusive practices essential.

Reading the report reaffirms the disregard for the value of human life prevailing in this conflict, as well as the rule of international law and norms

Yossi Mekelberg

Adding insult to injury, the Israeli government, despite repeated requests, refused to co-operate with the commission of inquiry, not even granting the commission access to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories. This was in a flagrant disregard of an international body, which under difficult conditions has produced a rather balanced report. The commission had to juggle its legal mandate, given by the U.N., with political realities. It took into account that last summer’s war took place in a very complex context, and was another tragic chapter in a protracted and bloody conflict.

Israel’s response

Israel’s response to the report might have been milder than to similar reports in the past, but it still made every effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the body of investigation and its true intentions. Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that the report was biased and was written by “… a committee that does everything but protect human rights.” It is customary in this kind of reports for all sides to protest the unfairness and imbalance of the findings and suggest the favoring of the other side. Israel’s aggressive criticism of the committee is an attempt to deflect the discernible asymmetry in all aspects of power between Israel and the Palestinians. Had some of the decision makers in Israel bothered to pay attention to the report, they would have recognized that it acknowledges that Israel has real reasons to be concerned for its security. These reasons derive from the constant launch of rockets from Gaza and the discovery of tunnels leading into Israel. One can never condone indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as those carried out by Palestinian militant groups through launching thousands of rockets into Israel before and during last summer. Yet, this has not happened in a vacuum either. Years of blockading the Gaza strip by Israel (and Egypt) amounted to “a continuing collective punishment” against the tiny though highly populated Gaza Strip. The strangling of the Gaza economy, as the report rightly points out, was already causing severe hardships and consequently violating the human rights of many Palestinians, literally and figuratively, who were licking their wounds and suffered psychological trauma due to two previous rounds of hostilities with Israel.

Reading the report reaffirms the disregard for the value of human life prevailing in this conflict, as well as the rule of international law and norms. Concentrating on the legal transgressions and accountability does not detract from the fact, and actually underlines, that the root cause of these repeated atrocities is the lack of a political solution. Between the cold statistics of the devastation caused by operation “Protective Edge” and the heart-breaking personal accounts of the senseless loss of lives and suffering, one is left wondering what it would take to make the people who are behind these gross violations of human rights accountable. Even more importantly, in the absence of a political solution, who can guarantee that the next round of hostilities is not around the corner, considering that the conditions that led to the last round of violence have not changed, and if it anything have just worsened.

No shadow of a doubt

The report leaves no shadow of a doubt that in the 2014 Gaza war, political leaders and combatants failed to abide by the three principles that are set by humanitarian law to govern the conduct of war. Distinction was not made in many cases “…between civilians and civilian objects and civilian objects on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other.” As is evident to anyone witness to the devastation in Gaza, inflicted by the Israeli military force, the principle of proportionality was not exercised either. The lack of restraint on the Israeli side ended in 2,251 Palestinians fatalities, a majority of them, 1,462, were civilians, including 299 women and 551 children and more than 11,000 injured. The destruction of many thousands of houses including schools and hospitals in the Gaza Strip and the spread of misery as a result, does not deserve the kind of complacency and disregard that usually comes from a number of Israeli leaders. They see the excessive use of violence as an acceptable aspect of the country’s deterrence strategy. It is both morally wrong and strategically self-defeating, feeding the very extreme forces they try to contain and losing in the process any remaining sympathy for the Jewish state from the international community.

For Israel, as for any other countries that claim to be liberal democracies, it is not a valid justification to argue that because it fights with organizations that are classified as terrorist, they are not obliged to uphold international law standards. It is still unacceptable to use unrestrained force. Stopping rockets flying from Gaza or destroying tunnels in its own sovereign territory is not only a right the Israeli government has, it is part of its obligation to the Israeli people. However, as regrettable and painful the loss of Israeli lives, citizens and soldiers, the military superiority including the most efficient anti-rocket system, the Iron Dome, should have left the Israelis enough room to demonstrate restraint and prevent the callous harming of Palestinian civilians. The Gaza commission rightly condemned the behavior of the Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, for targeting Israeli civilians with rockets, and even extrajudicial executions of Palestinians who were suspected of collaborating with Israel. However, this does not legitimize Israel’s disproportionate response, which ended in a gross violation of Palestinian’s human rights in Gaza and in the West Bank. Not only is Israel far more militarily powerful, it is also an occupying force. Depriving people of their basic human rights through occupation or blockade is bound to create resistance. Containing violence against Israeli civilians is understandable, but punishing a population which is vulnerable to begin with, not only deserved the condemnation from this report, but also requires the Israelis to alter these practices before it loses any semblance of a liberal democracy.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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