U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is warning Israel that targeting civilian facilities in Gaza may amount to war crimes, and she called for an end to the 16-day war in Gaza, which has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.
Pillay, who also condemned Palestinian fighters' tactics in the Gaza conflict, spoke Wednesday at the opening of an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The U.N. human rights chief set the tone for the emergency debate at the rights council. She lamented the high toll of civilian deaths caused by Israel’s military incursion in the Gaza Strip.
She noted that hostilities have resulted in the deaths of more than 600 Palestinians, including at least 147 children and 74 women. She said hundreds of homes and other civilian buildings have been destroyed or damaged and more than 140,000 Palestinians displaced.
Pillay cited a number of Israeli strikes on medical facilities and noted many instances of civilians, including women and children, being killed when their homes were hit by Israeli air strikes or shelling.
‘These are just a few instances where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," she said. "Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated.”
Pillay also had harsh words for the Palestinian group Hamas. She condemned Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza for indiscriminately firing more than 2,900 rockets, as well as mortar shells, into Israel. She said military assets such as rocket launch sites must not be located in densely populated areas, and noted these actions also may amount to war crimes.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki accused Israel of heinous crimes against his people. He said Israel’s bombing is causing massive destruction in Gaza and depriving people of their right to life.
“We should shed light on the Israeli practices. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes," he said. "The impunity enjoyed by Israel has given rise to a legal void - a void in which justice does not exist in the country and impunity prevails. That is why Israel is encouraged to repeat its violations.”
The applause that greeted the Palestinian official's comments triggered a reprimand from the rights council president, who told delegates to refrain from showing their passion.
Speaking for Israel, Ambassador Eviator Manor said the rights council had no understanding of Israel’s need to defend itself and was only interested in naming and shaming his country.
Manor accused Hamas of war crimes and said Israel will destroy the group’s military infrastructure. He added that residents of Gaza were not Israel’s enemies and said his government is fully committed to international law.
“This council has lost its bearing. This Special Session is misguided, ill conceived and counter-productive to efforts made as we speak to end hostilities," he said. "The resolution which will be presented to you today is totally unbalanced, asymmetric and destructive.”
The resolution in the rights council condemns what it calls the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights arising from Israel’s military operations in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in Gaza. It demands an immediate end to Israeli military assaults and insists Israel end its illegal closure of the Gaza Strip, which amounts to collective punishment.
The resolution also calls for an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law in the Palestinian territory.