The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon bowed to pressure from Israel yesterday by trying to limit the impact of a comprehensive critique accusing its military of “recklessness or negligence” in this year’s Gaza offensive.
The official UN report – which Mr Ban himself commissioned – criticised the Israel Defence Forces for breaching the inviolability of UN premises, causing deaths, injuries and damage in seven incidents involving UN installations, and on occasions issuing untrue statements about what had happened.
But in a covering letter attached to his own 27-page summary of the report, leaked last night, the secretary-general bluntly rejected its recommendations for further investigations into whether Israel had breached international law during the offensive, including by its use of white phosphorus.
Mr Ban’s efforts to draw a line under the report – compiled by a UN board of inquiry headed by Ian Martin, the British former head of Amnesty and UN envoy to East Timor – followed an intensive diplomatic effort by Israel to minimise the damage of its findings.
The report says that the IDF was “involved in varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property”.
The incidents examined in depth by the inquiry include the mortar attack on 6 January which killed up to 40 civilians outside a UN school in Jabalya being used as a shelter, and the devastating white phosphorus assault on the UN’s field office compound on 15 January which caused extensive damage.
In both cases, says Mr Ban’s summary, the UN is seeking “formal acknowledgement” by the government of Israel that its public statements claiming that Palestinian militants fired from the installations, were “untrue and regretted”. The report also recommends pressing Israel for compensation for the families of dead and injured UN personnel in the attacks.
The report says that the co-ordinates of the Jabalya school had been given to the IDF and that it had been notified of its planned use as a shelter even before Operation Cast Lead began. It notes that at the time of the rport’s drafting a claim that Hamas militants had fired mortars from within the compound and that the school was booby trapped was still on the Israeli foreign ministry website. It adds: “The Board found that there was no fire from within the compound and no explosives within the school.”
The report effectively accuses Israeli forces of repeatedly breaching the principle that “UN personnel and all civilians within UN premises, as well as civilians in the immediate vicinity of those premises, are to be protected in accordance with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law”.
The report also says that the deaths of two children and the injuries caused to 13 other civilians at another UN school used as an improvised shelter on 17 January were “undisputedly” caused by the artillery firing of 155mm shells which contained white phosphorus wedges.
The report also examines other hitherto little reported incidents, including an attack on the Asma UNRWA school in Gaza City, in which three young men, all members of a families taking shelter, were killed as a result of an “undisputed” single aerial missile. In another on a building opposite a UN health centre in the Bureij refugee after which one patient died, there was no warning, the report says. It says that one attack, on an installation in Karni, was probably the work of Hamas.
The report recommends further investigation of other both UN and non-UN related civilian deaths which have given rise to allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by both the IDF and Hamas.
But in his covering letter Mr Ban says he is “carefully considering” what actions “if any” to take on the 11 recommendations by the inquiry team. Mr Ban goes out of his way to thank Israel for its co-operation in the inquiry. He makes a point – urged on him by Israeli ministers and officials – of speaking out against “continued and indiscriminate” attacks by Hamas. And he said: “I do not plan any further enquiries.”
Israel yesterday rejected the report’s findings and its Foreign Ministry says the inquiry board “has preferred the claims of Hamas, a murderous terror organisation, and by doing so has misled the world”. Defence Secretary Ehud Barak repeated that Israel has “the most moral army in the world” and laid full responsibility for casualties on Hamas.