UN Report Accuses Israeli Forces of Carrying Out 'Extermination' Campaign in Gaza

Sanjana Karanth / HuffPost
UN Report Accuses Israeli Forces of Carrying Out 'Extermination' Campaign in Gaza A Palestinian boy salvages items from a damaged apartment on June 18 following overnight Israeli strikes in al-Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. (photo: AFP)

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A new independent reportpresented to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on Wednesday concluded that Israeli forces have been carrying out several crimes against humanity on the civilian population in Gaza, including a campaign of “extermination” that has ramped up since the current military offensive began more than eight months ago.

The report was conducted by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel. The independent commission, which initially published the report on June 12, was formed to investigate human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

The commission presented its report before the U.N. Human Rights Council, which began its 56th session in Geneva on Wednesday. The report focuses mostly on possible international violations of humanitarian and human rights laws from Oct. 7 to Dec. 31.

The commission’s report also found that militants belonging to Hamas and six other Palestinian armed groups engaged in the war crimes of murder, intentionally directing attacks on civilians, torture, inhuman or cruel treatment, destroying or seizing an adversary’s property, outrages upon personal dignity and taking hostages, including children, on Oct. 7.

“I am appalled by the disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law by parties to the conflict of Gaza. There has been unconscionable death and suffering,” U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk told member states on Tuesday.

The report additionally found that Israel is responsible for the war crimes of murder, intentionally directing attacks against civilians, forcible transfer, sexual violence, starvation as a method of warfare, torture and inhuman or cruel treatment, arbitrary detention and outrages upon personal dignity after the Oct. 7 attack.

Many of the acts were also included in the commission’s previous list of Israel’s crimes against humanity, in addition to extermination and gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys.

The primary difference between war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the international community, is that crimes against humanity can also occur in peacetime rather than solely amid armed conflict. The report did not conclude that Palestinian militants engaged specifically in crimes against humanity.

An act listed under the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, would be considered a crime against humanity when “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”

Hamas militants launched an Oct. 7 attack on Israel that left an estimated 1,200 people dead and about 240 taken hostage, roughly half of whom were released during a temporary halt in fighting in November.

Israel responded to the Hamas attack by carrying out a U.S.-funded military offensive in Gaza that so far has killed an estimated 37,000 people, displaced most of the population of 2.3 million, detained Palestinian men and boys, disproportionately harmed women and children, destroyed health infrastructure and created a starvation crisis by blocking lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

“More than 120,000 people in Gaza, overwhelmingly women and children, have been killed or injured since Oct. 7, as a result of the intensive Israeli offensives,” Türk said in his statement Tuesday. “Since Israel escalated its operations into Rafah in early May, almost one million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced yet again, while aid delivery and humanitarian access deteriorated further.”

“Israeli authorities consistently presented their military objectives as destroying all of Hamas, releasing Israeli hostages and preventing future threats to the State of Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip, yet their actions and the consequences of their actions indicate other motivations, including vengeance and collective punishment,” the report concluded.

“Statements made by Israeli officials reflected policy and practice of inflicting widespread destruction, killing large numbers of civilians and forcible transfer. The Commission found that statements made by Israeli officials amounted to incitement and may constitute other serious international crimes,” it said. “Statements aimed at systematically dehumanizing Palestinians, particularly Palestinian men and boys, and called for collective punishment.”

The findings did not just concern Israel and Gaza. According to the report, Israeli forces also committed the war crimes of sexual violence, torture and inhuman or cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while the Israeli government and military enabled and sometimes participated in settler violence against the territory’s Palestinian communities. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces or settlers since October, the report said, with at least 130 of them children.

Both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed militants have denied the accusations that both parties committed acts of sexual violence. Palestinian militants such as Hamas engaged in acts indicative of sexual violence on Oct. 7 “in similar ways in several locations primarily against Israeli women,” the commission said, specifying that some of the gender-based violence targeted both civilians and members of the Israeli military.

Specific forms of sexual and gender-based violence are essentially embedded into the Israeli military’s operating procedures, according to the report. The commission “made the finding due to the frequency, prevalence and severity of the violations, which include public stripping and nudity intended to humiliate the community at large and accentuate the subordination of an occupied people.”

The commission said that it was limited in some of its findings due to Israel not responding to its many requests to access both the country and Gaza for its investigation.

The report’s presentation comes just days after The Associated Press released a harrowing investigation that revealed how Israel’s continued military offensive in Gaza is wiping out entire Palestinian bloodlines, killing dozens of family members from multiple generations. From October to December, AP identified at least 60 Palestinian families in which at least 25 members were killed by Israeli bombing.

“When the family had one martyr, it lived in grief for all its life. Imagine now,” Youssef Salem, who lost hundreds of relatives in Gaza to Israeli airstrikes, told AP. “How could we still be sane after all of this?”

The Israeli government stands accused before the International Court of Justice of committing genocide against Palestinians ― an accusation that both Israel and the U.S. have rejected ― and the top war crimes prosecutor with the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders. The U.N. special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories also released a thorough investigation earlier this year concluding that Israel’s actions in Gaza meet the qualifications to be considered genocide.

“It is imperative that all those who have committed crimes be held accountable,” commission chair Navi Pillay said in a statement earlier this month. “The only way to stop the recurring cycles of violence, including aggression and retribution by both sides, is to ensure strict adherence to international law.”

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