Israeli suspicions that Hamas terrorists were operating near schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency did not justify the attacks against such facilities during this summer’s Gaza war, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday.
She spoke to reporters in Washington in response to questions about a report issued earlier that day by the nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch, which accused Israel of committing war crimes by indiscriminately targeting civilians during three attacks against UNRWA schools.
At the time Israel, said it had targeted Hamas terrorists in each instance: in Beit Hanun on July 24, in Jabalya on July 30, and in Rafah on August 3.
“We were horrified by the strikes that hit UNRWA facilities,” Harf said. She emphasized that UNRWA facilities must not be used for military purposes, as some were by Hamas, and that they should not use civilians to shield fighters.
“But also at the same time,” Harf continued, “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. Israeli authorities say they’re investigating. We expect these to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and we’ll continue pushing them to do so.”
In its report, Human Rights Watch said that, “Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate, if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.”
This HRW report did not accuse Hamas of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians by launching rockets against homes and schools.
However, a July report stated that, “Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel appear to be indiscriminate or targeted at civilian population centers, which are war crimes.”
The September HRW report called on the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes by both sides.
Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, told The Associated Press on Friday that in some cases, Hamas members fired rockets from or near residential areas or civilian facilities during the Gaza war.
On Wednesday, IDF Military Advocate-General Maj.-Gen. Dani Efroni opened five criminal investigations into actions during Operation Protective Edge, including the attack on Beit Hanun.
Seven cases have already been closed and an additional 99 are under investigation.
However, Human Rights Watch in its report said that, “Israel has a long record of failing to undertake credible investigations into alleged war crimes. Previous inquiries by the Israeli military of alleged war crimes committed by its forces have not met international standards for credible, impartial and independent investigations.”
The Israeli nongovernmental group B’Tselem said earlier last week that it was dissolving its relationship with the IDF over its investigatory failures.
B’Tselem executive director Hagai El-Ad explained the decision during a talk he gave in New York to the New America Foundation on Tuesday night. He alleged that Israel’s military has not been conducting itself as it claims.
The human rights organization did not explain how the dissolution of its relationship with the IDF would affect its ability to work efficiently and effectively.
El-Ad also warned against “over-fetishizing” death toll statistics following the Gaza war. Israeli and Palestinian sources report different death tolls, and during the past few weeks the United Nations has come under fire using statistics provided by organizations in Gaza. Additionally, organizations have come up with wildly different numbers for civilian deaths versus enemy combatants.
“There’s suffering in Israel and there’s suffering in Gaza. At the same time, there’s no symmetry,” El-Ad said. “It’s unpleasant to hear. It’s upsetting. It’s a fact.”
It seems clear that Israel’s use of force was not proportional during Operation Protective Edge, El-Ad said. He condemned the deaths of between 400 to 500 children as unacceptable.
“What we witnessed in those seven weeks was unprecedented in the history of the organization,” El-Ad said.
Israeli society is more polarized and the tension between Israelis and Palestinians has grown worse than ever before, El-Ad said. The only way to resolve the conflict, he said, echoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is to address the root causes of the conflict and to recognize the voices and concerns of the most effected on both sides.