Issues

Human Rights Investigators: Israel Adhered to Laws of War in Gaza Conflict

Statement comes ahead of UN report, which is expected to accuse Israel of war crimes

An Israeli tank takes a position along the Israel-Gaza Border
An Israeli tank takes a position along the Israel-Gaza Border / AP

JERUSALEM—A former commander of the German army and 10 other former generals and officials from four continents who investigated the human rights aspect of last summer's war in Gaza have concluded that Israel scrupulously adhered to the laws of war.

Their statement was released over the weekend, in anticipation of the release by the UN's Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of a report, which is expected to accuse Israel of war crimes in the conflict.

The foreign group was led by Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of staff of the Bundeswehr and former chairman of NATO's Military Committee. The panel conducted a week-long fact-finding visit to Israel last month at the initiative of a pro-Israel group.

"Each of our own armies is committed to protecting civilian life during combat," the report, which was submitted to the UNHRC, said. "None of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the IDF last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances. Israel not only met international standards in observing the laws of armed conflict but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard."

Acknowledging that some Palestinian deaths were caused by Israeli errors of judgment, the panel of generals declared that Palestinian militants "as the aggressors and the users of human shields" were responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Gaza.

Israel regards the UNHRC, which has frequently targeted Israel, as "obsessively" hostile and has refused to cooperate with its current investigation.

In a preemptive move, the Israeli government published its own report on the war Sunday, which noted that 4,000 of the 4,500 rockets and mortar shells fired by Hamas and other militant groups from Gaza during the 50 days of fighting were aimed at civilian targets. Hundreds of these rounds, it said, were fired from civilian compounds containing schools, mosques, and UN facilities.

The 250-page report said the Israeli army was unique in assigning military lawyers to the combat commanders "to ascertain that they act in accordance with international law." Firing missions are scrapped if the lawyers deem that they are illegal targets as defined by the Law of Armed Conflict.

Militants in Gaza are accused by Israel of deliberately basing themselves in residential areas. Israel has made it a practice during its recurring wars with Hamas to telephone residents of houses that are targeted and advise them to evacuate immediately.

Some 2,100 Gazans and 70 Israelis were killed in the fighting. Israel claims 44 percent of identified Palestinian casualties were militants. The Palestinians claim the overwhelming majority of those killed were civilians.

The report, drawn up by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Hamas’ strategy was to deliberately draw the fighting into urban areas both for tactical advantage and for the political gain from civilian casualties.

The UNHRC is expected to release its report this week. The original head of the committee’s investigation, Canadian legal expert William Schabas, resigned after Israel accused him of anti-Israel bias. His replacement is American jurist Mary McGowan Davis.