GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations human rights investigator said on Thursday that Israel’s military assault on densely populated Gaza appeared to constitute a grave war crime.
Richard Falk, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said the Geneva Conventions required warring forces to distinguish between military targets and surrounding civilians.
“If it is not possible to do so, then launching the attacks is inherently unlawful and would seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law,” Falk said.
“On the basis of the preliminary evidence available, there is reason to reach this conclusion,” he wrote in an annual 26-page report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Falk gave the same death toll from Israel’s offensive in December and January -- 1,434 Palestinians, including 960 civilians -- as the Palestinian human rights center.
Israel, which lost 13 people during the war, disputes the figures and has accused Hamas fighters in Gaza of using civilians as human shields during the conflict -- an allegation which Falk said should be investigated.
He called the Israeli attacks a “massive assault on a densely populated urbanized setting” in which the entire civilian population had been subjected to “an inhumane form of warfare that kills, maims and inflicts mental harm.”
“As all borders were sealed, civilians could not escape from the orbit of harm,” he said.
This denial of people’s right to flee the war zone as refugees may also constitute a crime against humanity, he said.
Falk called for an independent experts group to probe possible war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and Hamas. It should gather eyewitness testimony as well as explanations from Israeli and Palestinian military commanders.
Violations included Israel’s alleged “targeting of schools, mosques and ambulances” during the offensive, which lasted from December 27 to January 18, and its use of weapons including white phosphorus, as well as Hamas’s firing of rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel.
Falk said that Israel’s blockade of the coastal strip of 1.5 million people violated the Geneva Conventions and this suggested further war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
The aggression was not legally justified and may represent a “crime against peace” -- a principle established at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, according to Falk, an American law professor who serves as the Human Rights Council’s independent investigator.
Falk, who is Jewish, suggested the Security Council might set up an ad hoc criminal tribunal to establish accountability for war crimes in Gaza, noting Israel has not signed the Rome statutes establishing the International Criminal Court.
He was denied entry to Israel two weeks before the assault started, forcing him to abort a planned mission to Gaza. In his report, he said that the refusal had set an “unfortunate precedent” for treatment of a special rapporteur.
On Monday, he is to present his report formally to the Human Rights Council, a 47-member forum where Islamic and African countries backed by China, Cuba and Russia have a majority. Neither Israel nor its chief ally the United States are members.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Jonathan Wright