(New York) - An impartial international investigation into allegations of serious violations of the laws of war by Israel and Hamas during the recent fighting in Gaza is essential to establish key facts and to recommend mechanisms for holding violators accountable and providing compensation to victims, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch renewed its call for establishment of an independent, international commission of inquiry and said that the UN Security Council or UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should urgently take the necessary steps to achieve this.
"The Security Council and the secretary-general should both work to establish an independent investigation into alleged violations by both sides," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Since Human Rights Watch first made this call, our on-the-ground investigations have shown that the need for such a comprehensive inquiry is all the more apparent and pressing."
On January 12, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted to dispatch an international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel, but not alleged violations by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. Leading UN officials have called for an investigation specifically into Israeli attacks on UN schools and headquarters in Gaza. Israeli officials have said that the government will investigate these attacks as well as certain other alleged violations, such as the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas.
Human Rights Watch said that Israel's poor record of investigating and prosecuting serious violations by its forces, and the absence of any such effort by Hamas or other Palestinian groups, makes it essential that an inquiry be an independent international effort.
The fighting in Gaza from December 27, when Israel began its military operation, until Israel and Hamas unilaterally declared ceasefires on January 18, left some 1,300 Palestinians dead and more than 5,000 wounded, 40 percent of them children and women. In addition, the casualties included an undetermined number of male civilians not taking part in hostilities. Over the same period, Palestinian rocket fire killed three Israeli civilians and wounded more than 80. Ten Israeli soldiers were killed.
"Civilians have far-and-away paid the greatest price in this conflict," Stork said. "An independent investigation is a necessary step for ensuring the justice and accountability that they deserve."
Human Rights Watch called on all members of the Security Council to support the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry with the greatest possible expertise and authority and with a mandate to address serious violations by all parties to the conflict. In the absence of such action, Secretary-General Ban should immediately take the initiative to establish such an inquiry, Human Rights Watch said.
"While the Human Rights Council has acted as if only Israel deserves criticism, the US has often prevented the Security Council from acting to hold Israel accountable," Stork said. "These mutually reinforcing double standards have poorly served ordinary Palestinians and Israelis alike, not to mention respect for international law."
Human Rights Watch noted that Israel's refusal to allow independent journalists and human rights monitors into Gaza during the fighting makes it all the more crucial to have an investigation conducted by independent experts willing and able to interview victims and witnesses and collect physical evidence, as well as to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Human Rights Watch is currently in Gaza investigating allegations of serious violations of the laws of war, including:
Human Rights Watch said that an international commission of inquiry should also investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law prior to the Israeli military offensive that began on December 27. These should include rocket fire by Palestinian armed groups into Israeli civilian areas and Israel's blockade of people and essential goods and services into and out of Gaza, which is a form of collective punishment. The commission of inquiry should investigate who was responsible for ordering and carrying out violations, as well as those who knew or should have known of them but did nothing to halt them.
"The parties to the Gaza conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war," Stork said. "The victims deserve nothing less than a legitimate and comprehensive impartial investigation that leads to full accountability and redress."
States have an obligation to investigate serious violations of the laws of war. When committed with criminal intent, such violations are war crimes. Where there is evidence that a war crime may have been committed, a state has an obligation to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects. Non-state armed groups should take appropriate disciplinary and judicial measures against members of their forces who commit laws-of-war violations.
Previous Israel Defense Forces (IDF) investigations into alleged serious violations of the laws of war, when they have occurred, have been deeply flawed. An IDF investigation into the killings of 27 people in the Lebanese village of Qana  on July 29, 2006, for example, was incomplete and legally misguided, and its findings contradicted eyewitness testimonies.
Following Israeli military operations in the Jenin refugee camp  in the West Bank in April 2002, Human Rights Watch provided Israeli officials with prima facie evidence of the use of civilians as human shields and other war crimes by Israeli forces. To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, Israel at no point investigated these incidents or held any of its military personnel accountable.
During Israel's previous major ground offensive in Gaza, in late February and early March 2008, Human Rights Watch found that Israeli forces carried out several targeted killings of persons not taking part in hostilities and other serious laws-of-war violations. To date, no IDF investigations have taken place into these incidents.
Hamas is not known to have investigated or punished any members of its military wing or other Palestinian armed groups who engaged in unlawful rocket attacks into Israel or other alleged laws-of-war violations.
Human Rights Watch focuses on international law governing the conduct of hostilities by each party to a conflict, especially with respect to sparing civilians the hazards of war. Human Rights Watch does not address whether Hamas or Israel is justified in resorting to armed force or in the extent of force deployed. Human Rights Watch believes this is the best way to promote the goal of encouraging all sides in armed conflicts to respect international humanitarian law.
Human Rights Watch said that a credible inquiry requires examining all aspects of the conflict and its impact on civilians, and investigating all alleged abuses. "Highlighting abuses of both sides does not, and should not, imply equating the conduct of both sides," Stork said.