TEL AVIV — Findings released Monday from a UN Independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza conflict blamed Israel for the bulk of what it condemned as indiscriminate and potentially illegal acts committed by both sides in last summer's 51-day war.
While insisting that it is "neither a judicial body nor a prosecutor," the commission established by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found "reasonable grounds" to hold both sides accountable for war crimes committed last July and August.
The report noted that up to 10 organized armed groups in Gaza collectively fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars at Israel, killing six Israeli civilians.
"The Commission has serious concerns with regard to the inherently indiscriminate nature of most of the projectiles directed towards Israel by these groups and to the targeting of civilians, which violate international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime."
It also noted that investigations by Palestinian authorities were "woefully inadequate" to hold militants accountable for crimes, "seemingly owing to lack of political will."
Nevertheless, as predicted by the Israeli government, which declined to cooperate with the UNHRC investigation, the report focused primarily on Israeli policies and targeting operations that resulted in 2,251 Palestinians killed, including 299 women and 551 children.
"The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come," Commission Chairwoman Mary McGowan Davis said Monday upon release of the 182-page report and its various annexes.
The report assailed the more than 6,000 air strikes and some 50,000 tank and artillery shells fired at targets in Gaza; and questioned the military's designation of targets and its use of heavy weaponry in civilian-congested areas.
Specifically, it took Israel to task for targeting multistory residential buildings, at least six of which it claimed served no clear military objective other than to intimidate and deter.
Investigators conceded "possible military objectives" attached to nine of the 15 cases of IDF-destroyed buildings. But in the remaining six cases, investigators said they found "little or no information available as to why residential buildings – which are prima facie civilian objects immune from attack – were considered to be legitimate" targets.
"At least 142 families lost three or more members in an attack on residential buildings during the summer of 2014, resulting in 742 deaths," the report found. "The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of air strikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises the question of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government."
It added: "Given the absence of information suggesting in each case that the anticipated military advantage at the time of the attack was such that the expected civilian casualties and damage to the targeted and surrounding buildings were not excessive, there are strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime."
The report included charts and graphics of heavy munitions, including US-provided 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) used by the Israel Air Force in heavily populated areas, and called on the Israeli government to restrict their use in proximity to innocents.
The UN commission said Israel should not only investigate its wartime policies and targeting procedures, but lift the naval blockade of Gaza and "address structural issues that fuel the conflict and have a negative impact on a wide range of human rights, including the right to self-determination."
Monday's report generated condemnation by the Israeli government and opposition leaders who accused the UNHRC as inherently biased and willfully ignoring Israel's right to self defense.
"The commission that wrote this report was appointed by a council that calls itself the 'Human Rights' council, but in effect, it does everything but look after human rights," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Addressing the Israeli Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu insisted: "Israel does not commit war crimes. Israel is defending itself from a murderous terrorist organization that calls for its destruction and which has perpetrated many war crimes.
"The commission expects a country, the citizens of which have been attacked by thousands of missiles, to sit idly by. We will not sit, and have not sat, idly by.
"We will continue to take strong and determined action against all those who try to attack us and our citizens, and we will do so in accordance with international law," Netanyahu said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said the purpose of the UNHRC and its ostensibly independent commission of inquiry had one purpose: "To blacken the face of the State of Israel and to add oil to the flames of delegitimizing acts against it."
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Ya'alon said the report should be an affront to all Western nations which, like Israel, "are forced to fight against terror organizations … and find themselves in impossible situations where those same terrorists not only abuse their own civilians, but exploit our own sensitivities to human suffering."
He added, "It's amazing that when thousands of civilians are being slaughtered around us by terrorist organizations and terror-supporting states, the UNHRC doesn't deal with this. It's therefore not surprising that a hypocritical organization ignores routine and blatant human rights abuses in the countries around us, preferring instead to focus on the self-defense measures of Israel, the Jewish democracy in the Middle East."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.