It is a hard-hitting report, harder than the Goldstone Commission’s report on the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2009. UN reports on the 2014 war have already described the extent of the violence used by Israel against civilian targets – which is why the death toll against Palestinian civilians was so dramatic.
The HRC report merely confirms their information. Here there is nothing new.
Far more important is the analysis of the bombings and the implications of the style of Israeli warfare. Palestinians in Gaza, the report notes, “were confronted with intense attacks, with no way of knowing which locations would be hit and which might be considered safe”.
Israeli bombing of UNRWA schools – which had been turned into shelters – suggested that no place was immune from the bombardment: “People began to move from one place to another, only to encounter attacks in the new neighbourhood, and they would have to move on.”
The Israeli authorities declared that almost half of Gaza was a no-go area, with exit from Gaza rendered impossible.
“These terrifying circumstances,” write the commissioners, “created a sense of entrapment, of having ‘no safe place’ to go.”
Clearly, Israel targeted residential areas, including homes. The commission looked at six such cases of hundreds reported. It found no information available “to explain why residential buildings, which are prima facie civilian objects immune from attack, were considered to be legitimate military objectives”.
A fifth of the civilians killed in 2014 were women, while in 2009 they accounted for 14 percent of civilian casualties.
There is a damning sentence early in the report, which shows the repetition of Israeli attacks. “Other incidents – namely attacks by Israel on United Nations shelters, medical facilities, ambulances, and other critical infrastructure – are considered less thoroughly, because these patterns have been a recurring reality in this and prior conflicts.”
The UN and human rights organisations have complained repeatedly about Israeli armed actions against shelters and medical facilities to no avail. The “international” community has been blind to these incidents and allegations.
Balanced report, unbalanced war
Israel immediately condemned the report as “biased”. The commissioners, however, criticised both the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the armed Palestinian groups’ attacks on Israel.
Despite every attempt at “balance”, the report had to stay close to the facts: “Palestinian and Israeli children were savagely affected by the events,” they write.
This is of course horrible. But then the report provides a number that reveals the imbalance of the conflict – more than 1,500 children in Gaza were orphaned by the war.
The report cites the story of Bader Odeih, aged six, who pleaded with those fleeing Khuzaa as he held his intestines in his hands: “I don’t want to die. Don’t leave me.”
What happens to a report of this magnitude? US pressure ensured that the Goldstone Report on Israel’s 2009 bombing of Gaza went into the vaults to gather cobwebs.
Will a similar fate befall the Davis Report? It is likely. The report’s assessment of its future is captured in the report itself.
“The commission is concerned that impunity prevails across the board for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces, whether it be in the context of active hostilities in Gaza or killings, torture and ill-treatment in the West Bank.”
What should be done about it? The International Criminal Court’s prosecutors seem politically unwilling to open a file on Israel’s actions.
The Davis Report, therefore, turns to plead with Israel:
“Israel must break with its recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable, not only as a means to secure justice for victims but also to ensure the necessary guarantees for non-repetition.”
Would Israel be capable of such probity? The Davis Report notes that the military tactics used against Gaza in 2014 were “reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the government of Israel”.
With the leadership in Israel implicated in potential war crimes, how would the UN expect that it would hold itself accountable?
The 277-page report released by the Israelis themselves last week whitewashed its conduct in the war. It is unlikely, therefore, that Israel would seek to transform its own policies volutarily.
Other means are needed – a strong reaction from the International Criminal Court, a more vigorous commitment to international pressure on the Israeli government and, of course, greater international support for the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a Senior Research Fellow at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback).