UN warns of Israel Gaza ‘war crimes’

UN Human Rights boss Navi Pillay says Israel’s military actions in Gaza “could amount to war crimes”

The UN’s top human rights official has condemned Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip, saying that war crimes may have been committed.

PalestineNavi Pillay told an emergency debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that Israel’s military offensive had not done enough to protect civilians.

She also condemned Hamas for “indiscriminate attacks” on Israel.

Israel launched its offensive on 8 July with the declared objective of stopping rocket fire from Gaza.

“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” Ms Pillay said.

However Israel, which claims the UN Human Rights Council is biased, is unlikely to co-operate with any authorised UN investigation, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva reports.

Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni described the UN Human Rights Council as an “anti-Israel” body, Reuters news agency reported.

Empty arrival lounge of Ben Gurion international airport, near Tel Aviv, on 23 July 2014 Some European and US airlines suspended flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport after a rocket landed nearby

At least 649 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have been killed in the past 15 days of fighting, officials say.

A foreign worker in southern Israel was also killed by a rocket fired from Gaza on Wednesday, police said.

The UN says about 74% of those killed in Gaza are civilians, with medical clinics among the facilities hit by air strikes.

“Civilians in Gaza have no safe place to go as 44% of the land has been declared a ‘no-go zone’ by the Israeli army,” the assistant secretary-general at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

“Families are taking the heart-wrenching decision to split to different locations – mother and son to one; father and daughter to another – hoping to maximise the chance one part of the family survives.”

State of panic

There was heavy fighting in the town of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

Palestinians ride in a donkey cart as they flee their houses following heavy Israeli shelling during an Israeli ground offensive east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, 23 July 2014 Palestinians fled an Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis on Wednesday

Smoke billows from a beach shack following an Israeli military strike on Gaza City, 16 July 2014 Ms Pillay said an attack on a Gaza beach that killed several children may have violated humanitarian law

An Israeli soldier weeps over the casket of Private First Class Jordan Bensimon during his funeral in Ashkelon, Israel, 22 July 2014 Three civilians in Israel and 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed over the last 15 days

Eyewitnesses say around 5,000 Palestinians, some waving white flags, are fleeing in a state of panic following a ground incursion by Israeli troops, the BBC’s Paul Adams in Gaza reports.

Meanwhile US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on Wednesday to try to help negotiate a truce.

“We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done,” he said shortly after arriving.

Mr Kerry flew by military plane to Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, as several US and European airlines continue to suspend civilian flights into Israel after a rocket from Gaza landed near the airport.

German airline Lufthansa announced on Wednesday it would extend the ban for another 24 hours.

‘Hamas accountable’

At least five people died in an air strike in Khan Younis overnight. An Israeli soldier was also killed.

A Palestinian woman whom the BBC filmed being pulled from the rubble of a Gaza blast on Sunday also died from her injuries, her doctor said. Ten of her relatives were killed in the blast.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Mr Kerry have both called for an immediate end to hostilities and for the underlying causes of the conflict to be addressed.

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas should be held accountable for rejecting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

Out of media player. Press enter to return or tab to continue.

Are Israeli air strike warnings effective? The BBC examines footage from both sides

Referring to a 16 July Israeli air strike that killed children playing on a beach in Gaza, Ms Pillay said “the disregard for international humanitarian law and for the right to life was shockingly evident”.

She also condemned rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

“The principles of distinction and precaution are clearly not being observed during such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups,” she told the UN Human Rights Council.

Despite her condemnation of Hamas attacks on Israel, Ms Pillay clearly views Israel’s actions in Gaza as disproportionate, our correspondent says.

‘Regrettable deaths’

“Israel is acting according to international law,” Ms Livni said.

“It is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens.”

A 2009 UN human rights report said that Israel’s military and Hamas had each committed potential war crimes during Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza.

The Goldstone report was rejected by Israel and the US as biased and flawed.

In 2011, the report’s author, South African judge Richard Goldstone, said that new accounts indicated Israel had not deliberately targeted civilians.