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(New York) – Influential governments and organizations should apply diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on all parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict to carry out the Gaza Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations, Human Rights Watch said today.

The commission’s report, released on June 22, 2015, in Geneva, calls on Israel and Palestine to investigate and appropriately punish those who violated the laws of war during the 2014 fighting, including senior commanders and officials, and to alter policies that caused unlawful civilian deaths. The Commission of Inquiry noted the track record of impunity by all sides. It said that other countries and international organizations should actively support the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, who is examining whether to open a formal investigation.

“The Commission of Inquiry report documents a litany of horrific abuses from the 2014 Gaza conflict that are sadly similar to violations from the past,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The question is whether influential governments will press the parties to implement the recommendations, or will they wait for the report after the next Gaza war detailing even more unlawful civilian deaths.”

Human Rights Watch made the following initial comments about the commission’s findings:

  • The commission appropriately highlighted the extensive death and destruction from last year’s fighting, especially in Gaza, where 1,462 Palestinian civilians lost their lives, including 299 women and 551 children. Alongside civilian deaths, the report stressed the “enormous destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza”;

  • The commission documented serious laws-of-war violations by Israeli forces that resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths. These include attacks on residential buildings without an apparent military target, the indiscriminate use of artillery and other explosive weapons in populated areas, and the apparent targeting of civilians who were not participating in hostilities. The Israeli practice of issuing warnings to civilians had “limited effectiveness” and should be improved, the commission said;

  • The commission documented serious violations of the laws of war by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. These include mortar and rocket fire into populated areas of Israel, which killed six civilians, sometimes fired unnecessarily from within or near civilian areas in Gaza. The primary purpose of these attacks, the commission said, was apparently to “spread terror among the civilian population, in violation of international humanitarian law.” The report also said the executions of 21 suspected collaborators were war crimes;

  • Israel justified its lack of cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry by accusing the UN Human Rights Council of bias, but the report, drafted by individual commissioners, rather than the council, extensively documents and condemns serious violations by Hamas; highlights the suffering of civilians in Israel, as well as in Gaza; and makes recommendations to all parties to the conflict. Documentation of Hamas violations might have been stronger had Israel let the commission into Gaza or answered its questions;

  • The commission highlighted the urgent need for all sides to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. It calls on Israel to change its “investigations into conflicts over the past decade have found that neither Israel nor Hamas has been willing to seriously investigate, much less prosecute, abuses by its own forces;

  • A key to accountability, the commission said, is to focus not just on soldiers who commit individual crimes but also on the commanders and senior officials who set policies that led to unnecessary civilian deaths. The commission noted that Israeli political and military leaders failed to change any of these policies during the war, despite clear evidence during the fighting that the existing policies were producing massive civilian casualties. This “raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law by these officials, which may amount to war crimes,” the report says;

  • The key difference from earlier Gaza wars is the new role of the ICC which now has jurisdiction over serious crimes committed on or from the territory of Palestine going back to June 13, 2014. The commission called on relevant parties to cooperate with the ICC during its preliminary examination and later if an investigation is opened. 

On June 14, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry published a report concluding that Israel adhered to the laws of armed conflict, and in some cases went beyond its legal obligations. It made these claims despite evidence of serious violations by Israeli forces, Human Rights Watch said. Israel’s military advocate general is currently investigating more than 100 allegations of Israeli laws-of-war violations, but he has already closed a number of cases that the Commission of Inquiry raised as possible war crimes. Furthermore, Israel is not investigating the role of senior officials, and has no laws permitting prosecution as a matter of command responsibility. Authorities in Gaza have not initiated any investigation, nor have they indicated any intention of doing so.

“Israel and Hamas have a long history of not seriously investigating themselves, and they have made clear that this war is no different,” Whitson said. “Unless this lack of credible domestic efforts unexpectedly changes, the ICC could step in to reduce the accountability gap.”

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