Israel, Hamas accused of war crimes in new UN report

Both sides are accused of attacking civilian populations and "murder or wilful killings".

In Summary
  • The report specifically accused Israel of crimes against humanity for torture, "extermination" and "gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys".
  • Israel rejected the report's findings and accused the commission of pursuing "a narrow-led political agenda" against it.
An Israeli air strike hits a building in Gaza in retaliation of the surprise October 7, 2023, attack by Hamas.
An Israeli air strike hits a building in Gaza in retaliation of the surprise October 7, 2023, attack by Hamas.
Image: SCREENGRAB/FILE

Israel and Hamas have been accused of committing a litany of war crimes and human rights abuses since 7 October in a new independent report to the UN Human Rights Council.

The damning accusations, compiled by investigators from the UN's Commission of Inquiry, accused both sides of war crimes for mounting attacks against civilian populations and "murder or wilful killings".

The report, which covers the period up to the end of 2023, specifically accused Israel of crimes against humanity for torture, "extermination" and "gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys".

Israel rejected the report's findings and accused the commission of pursuing "a narrow-led political agenda" against it.

Investigators compiled the report, which will be submitted to the UN's human rights council next week, through hours of interviews with victims and witnesses, medical reports and open source information.

The panel, led by former UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, said Israel's use of heavy weapons in populated areas constituted a war crime as it was a direct attack on civilian populations which intended to cause "maximum damage, disregarding the principles of distinction, proportionality and adequate precautions".

Israel was also accused of several other war crimes, including starvation, arbitrary detention, and the killing and maiming of “tens of thousands of children”. The report also said Israel had weaponised a "total siege" which limited power, food and water to civilians, which it said amounted to "collective punishment".

Other crimes against humanity committed by Israel, the authors said, included the "extermination, murder, gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys, forcible transfer of the population, torture, and inhuman and cruel treatment".

Hamas was also accused of a host of abuses during its 7 October attacks, which saw 1,200 people killed and 251 more kidnapped. The report said there was evidence of widespread sexual violence committed against Israeli women and a pattern of mass killings in public shelters.

“Many abductions were carried out with significant physical, mental and sexual violence and degrading and humiliating treatment, including in some cases parading the abductees,” the report said. “Women and women’s bodies were used as victory trophies by male perpetrators.”

Israeli forces were also accused of sexual violence for public stripping of Palestinians, which the investigators said was intended "to humiliate the community at large and accentuate the subordination of an occupied people".

Israel - which refused to co-operate with the investigation - was quick to reject the report, accusing it of “systematic anti-Israeli discrimination".

Meirav Eilon Shahar, its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, accused the commission of seeking to draw a false equivalence between Hamas and the Israeli military in relation to sexual violence.

Hamas has yet to comment on the allegations.

The report itself does not carry any penalties, but it could be used in a potential future prosecution of Israeli and Hamas leaders.

Michael Becker, a professor of international human rights law at Trinity College Dublin, told the BBC that the International Criminal Court (ICC) - which has issued warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders - would likely rely on the report to find new lines of inquiry it can pursue in its investigation, but that it was unlikely to serve as "direct evidence" in the case.

He added that there was "no question" that South Africa would direct the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to the report as part of its separate case which accuses Israel of genocide in Gaza.

He noted that the ICJ "often refers to these kind of reports in its decision," but warned that South Africa would have to convince judges that the report is "methodologically sound".

Speaking after the publication of the report, Ms Pillay said it was "imperative" that anyone accused of committing crimes in the conflict "be held accountable".

“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," she added.

Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al-Masri and Ismail Haniyeh are already subject to an arrest warrant issued by the ICC for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant are also subject to similar warrants. Wednesday's report specifically attacked the rhetoric used by some unnamed Israeli officials, which it said could amount to "incitement" and may constitute "other serious international crimes".

More than 37,120 people have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Meanwhile, the UN is set to add Israel's military, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad's armed wing to its list of offenders for violating children’s rights for the first time.

The annual report - seen by the BBC and due to be released on Thursday - is meant to shame parties so that they commit to measures outlined by the UN to protect children.

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