Heavy construction equipment is used to sift through rubble to uncover valuables before it is transported away from the scene of a building destroyed in an airstrike prior to a cease-fire that halted an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Gaza City. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Construction equipment is used to sift through rubble before it is transported away from the scene of a building destroyed in an airstrike prior to a cease-fire that halted an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, May 27, 2021, in Gaza City.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Thursday Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza may constitute war crimes, while stressing rocket attacks by Hamas were also a violation of international law. 

Bachelet made the remarks during a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, requested by the Organization of Islamic Conference —  a group of Muslim states  —  seeking an international investigation into human rights issues in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.  

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is seen on a screen delivering her speech remotely at the opening of a U.N. Human Rights Council emergency meeting in Geneva, May 27, 2021.

In comments delivered remotely from her offices in Geneva, Bachelet discussed the 11-day conflict that ended with a cease-fire last week. She said as the conflict began, Hamas and other armed groups launched a rocket barrage toward Israel. Because those attacks were indiscriminate and did not distinguish between military and civilian objects, they constituted “a clear violation of international humanitarian law.” 

But she said Israel responded with intense airstrikes from fighter planes and shelling from the sea, resulting in a "high level of civilian fatalities and injuries." She said the targets included government buildings, residential homes, international humanitarian organizations, medical facilities and media offices.  

Bachelet said while Israel insisted these buildings hosted armed groups, it has yet to produce evidence supporting their claims. 

“If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate, such attacks might constitute war crimes," she said. 

Israeli Ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar delivers a speech during a UN Human Rights Council emergency meeting on occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem in Geneva on May 27, 2021.

Speaking at the same hearing, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Meirav Eilon Shahar, denounced Hamas as a "jihadist, genocidal, terrorist organization" and accused it of using Palestinian civilians as human shields to conceal its rockets. She said each of the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza “constitutes a war crime." 

Israel has accused the U.N. Human Rights Council of being biased against the Jewish state. 

Bachelet said her office had verified the deaths of 270 Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 68 children, during the violence this month. Most were killed in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas rockets have killed at least 10 people in Israel.

The United Nations also launched a humanitarian appeal Thursday for $95 million to assist one million Palestinians, primarily in Gaza, for the next three months.

The U. N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory Lynn Hastings told reporters that damage to civilian infrastructure is extensive and includes 58 schools, six hospitals and 285 residential and commercial buildings. There is also an increased need for psycho-social support and other assistance.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week wrapped up a Middle East visit aimed at boosting the cease-fire and pledging assistance for Palestinians.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this story from New York.
 

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