“The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) acted within the bounds of international law during the war with Hamas in Gaza last summer. Israel not only met but significantly exceeded international legal standards,” a high level group of former diplomats and military experts concluded after a fact-finding mission to Israel in May.
The mission’s conclusions have been submitted to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva ahead of the imminent release of the report by the UN’s controversial Schabas-Davis commission of inquiry on Gaza which will be debated on Monday, June 29 before the Human Rights Council.
UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO has published sections of the findings of the 11-member High Level International Military Group. The mission was led by General Klaus Naumann, former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, the most senior officer in the Alliance, along with 10 other former chiefs of staff, generals, senior officers, political leaders and officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Spain, Italy, Australia and Colombia. Among them, former Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi and the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. Richard Kemp.
The mission was the first multi-national group of senior officers to visit Israel in the context of the 2014 conflict, and were granted an unprecedented level of access.
“We examined the circumstances that led to the tragic conflict last summer and are in no doubt that this was not a war that Israel wanted. Israel sought to avoid the conflict and exercised great restraint over a period of months before the war when its citizens were targeted by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza,” the report said.
Following are extracts from the report by the High Level International Group:
- “Once the war had begun, Israel made repeated efforts to terminate the fighting. The war that Israel was eventually compelled to fight against Hamas and other Gaza extremists was a legitimate war, necessary to defend its citizens and its territory against sustained attack from beyond its borders.”
- “Hamas rocket attacks deliberately and indiscriminately targeted Israeli civilian population centres in the south of the country. We visited one, the kibbutz Nahal Oz, at which more than 150 Hamas rockets had been directed last summer, causing loss of life and large-scale destruction. Many attacks were also launched against major cities further north including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hamas deliberately fired missiles at Ben Gurion International Airport, disrupting and threatening international civil air traffic. There is no doubt that all of these attacks constitute war crimes.”
- “Hamas also constructed an array of tunnels, using materials diverted from humanitarian supplies, which penetrated the border between Gaza and Israel, in many cases emerging close to civilian communities. We entered one such tunnel, which extended over two kilometres, terminating only a few hundred yards from a kibbutz and likely intended to eventually bore into the kibbutz itself. We can only conclude that these tunnels were designed, at least in part, to attack, kill and abduct Israeli civilians. This again constitutes a war crime.”
- “Hamas launched attacks against Israel from the heart of its own civilian communities in Gaza and positioned its munitions and military forces there also, including in schools, hospitals and mosques. As well as carefully documented IDF evidence of this, we have viewed international media footage confirming several cases and are aware of senior Hamas officials’ own claims to have used human shields. A recent report by the UN Secretary General confirmed that in some cases Hamas even used UN facilities for storing munitions and launching attacks.”
- “Each of our own armies is of course committed to protecting civilian life during combat. But 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.”
- “We agree with the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who following the Pentagon’s fact-finding mission to Israel, went on record last November as saying that in the 2014 Gaza conflict, ‘Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties’.”
- “Our overall findings are that during Operation Protective Edge last summer, in the air, on the ground and at sea, Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.”
- “We saw clear evidence of this from the upper to the lower levels of command. A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives.”
An Israeli government-appointed panel on Sunday also submitted a report to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluding that Israel adhered to international law during last year’s war with Hamas.
“We will expose the truth. Israel did not commit war crimes,” Netanyahu said Sunday.
The Prime Minister said that “anyone who wants to know the truth will read Israel’s report… Those who want to continue the baseless accusations can waste their time reading the U.N. report.”
Netanyahu said ‘Operation Protective Edge’ that was launched against Hamas in July 2014 “was carried out to defend Israeli citizens from a terrorist organization that was carrying out a dual war crime: firing indiscriminately on Israeli citizens while hiding behind their own citizens.”
“Israel and the IDF are committed to the rules of international law even when fighting terrorist organizations that intentionally violated those rules,” he said.
He said that this commitment does not flow from one report or another, but rather from the fact that “Israel is a democratic, moral state that acts in accordance to international law.”
While an off-quoted figure places the number of Palestinian civilian casualties at 2,000, according to the Israeli report 936 combatants were killed or 44 percent of the total.
36 percent of those killed, or 761 people were civilians, and another 20 percent of the casualties, or 428, have not yet been determined, with the IDF and the intelligence services still going name by name to determine whether they were combatants or civilians.
Israel, according to the report, “did not intend and deeply regrets, the harm causes to the Palestinian civilian population and surroundings” during the conflict.
“This resulted because Hamas intentionally wanted the conflict to take place in an urban environment,” the report said, adding that Hamas combat manuals and training materials “demonstrate that its strategy was to deliberately draw the hostilities into the urban terrain and to use built-up areas and the presence of the civilian population for tactical advantage and political gain.”
It is against that background as well as Hamas’s “intertwining their military operations in a civilian environment” that led to the harm caused to the civilians, the report asserted.
The Israeli Prime Minister said Sunday that the report was “especially important” now because Israel “is under an unprecedented attack of delegitimization.” “This attack is not substantive, it is political. Its goal is to blacken the State of Israel and we are preparing to respond,” he said.