Israeli attack on Beit Hanoun a possible war crime – head of UN-backed probe

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

18 September 2008 – Israel’s shelling of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip in November 2006, which killed 19 Palestinian civilians, may constitute a war crime, the head of the United Nations-backed investigation into the incident said today.

The attack “took lives, inflicted horrendous physical and mental injuries, tore families apart, destroyed homes, took away livelihoods and traumatized a population,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu told reporters in Geneva, after presenting the final report of the high-level fact-finding mission set up by the UN Human Rights Council.

The mission, which was able to travel to Beit Hanoun in May this year through Egypt after 14 months of trying to gain entry through Israel, also included Professor Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics.

During their visit to Gaza, the team spoke to a range of people, including survivors, Government officials, staff from the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as former Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyah and other members of Hamas.

“The story of the Beit Hanoun shelling is, if anything, a story of the failure of the rule of law,” Mr. Tutu said. “Nineteen civilians [including seven children] were killed and many more injured yet no verifiable explanation has been offered, no independent, impartial and transparent investigation has been held, no one has been held to account.”

The Israeli military has admitted responsibility for the attack but claimed a technological error, noted Mr. Tutu.

“Faced with this absence of a well-founded explanation from the Israeli military, the mission has to conclude that there is a possibility that the shelling of Beit Hanoun constituted a war crime,” he stated.

“Accountability involves providing a remedy and redress for victims,” he added. “To date, neither has been forthcoming from Israel, despite its admission of responsibility for the attack.”

The report also noted that the shelling of Beit Hanoun took place in the context of the firing of rockets towards Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants. Noting that accountability is “a two-way street,” Mr. Tutu said Hamas has a legal obligation to respect international humanitarian law prohibiting the targeting of civilians.

The team stressed the need to have an independent, impartial investigation to establish the facts of the incident. “War crimes are very serious charges and require a great deal of detailed evidence collecting and determination of the legal situation against the factual situation,” noted Professor Chinkin.

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