JERUSALEM — A much-awaited United Nations report into the 2014 Gaza war released Monday found that both Israel and Palestinian militant groups may have committed war crimes during the conflict.
Both Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers quickly rejected the report's findings, which said Palestinian militants targeted civilians in their rocket attacks, while Israeli forces likely used "disproportionate" force in civilian areas of the Gaza Strip — both identified by the U.N. committee as potential war crimes.
While Israel long has had a contentious relationship with the United Nations, the stakes now are much higher as Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court and are pursuing war crimes charges against Israel. Monday's report could play a key role in the case against Israel.
"The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come," said Mary McGowan Davis, the chair of the commission. "There is also ongoing fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat."
The war started July 8, 2014, after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, as well as the subsequent kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack. Israel responded to the teens' kidnapping by arresting hundreds of Hamas members in raids in the West Bank, prompting militant groups in Gaza to step up their rocket attacks.
More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed during the fighting, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials, while 73 people, including six civilians, died on the Israeli side.
Israel preemptively criticized the report as biased. In particular, Israel took issue with the U.N. Human Rights Council that commissioned the inquiry, saying it is stacked with countries that focus disproportionate attention on Israel while having poor human rights records themselves.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that throughout the conflict Israel acted according to international law and he criticized the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday as a body that does "everything but worry about human rights."
"Israel does not commit war crimes. Israel defends itself against a terrorist organization that calls for its destruction and carries out many war crimes," Netanyahu said. "We will continue to act forcefully and determinedly against those who seek to harm our citizens and we will do this according to international law."
Hamas was similarly defiant, with senior official Ghazi Hamad telling The Associated Press the U.N. report created a false balance "between the victims and the killers." He said Hamas rockets and mortars were aimed at Israeli military sites, not at civilians.
Israel has attacked the council's latest investigation since it was ordered last July. Israeli claims of bias forced the head of the investigation, Canadian law professor William Schabas, to resign earlier this year after it was discovered he had provided legal advice to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Schabas was replaced by Davis, an American jurist. The other member of the commission was Doudou Diene of Senegal.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said it was studying the full U.N. report, but noted "it is well known that the entire process that led to the production of this report was politically motivated and morally flawed from the outset." It said the UNHRC "has a singular obsession with Israel, passing more country specific resolutions against Israel than against Syria, Iran and North Korea combined — in fact, more than against all other countries combined."
A report by the council into the 2008-2009 war, conducted by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, found evidence that Israel and Hamas both committed war crimes, though Goldstone later backed off his key allegations against Israel.
The U.N. commission, which presented its findings in Geneva, said the 2014 hostilities saw a huge increase in firepower, with more than 6,000 airstrikes by Israel and approximately 50,000 tank and artillery shells fired. Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars toward Israel during the 50-day war, it said.
Palestinians have said that the Israeli army violated the rules of war, which include giving adequate warning to civilians, using proportionate force and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. They have pointed to the high civilian casualty count as evidence.
Israel claims that Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties because it used Gaza's residents as "human shields" by firing rockets from residential areas and operating in schools, hospitals and mosques. It also notes that Hamas' rockets and mortar shells were aimed at Israeli population centers.
Israel has argued that it took unprecedented measures to avoid civilian casualties, ordering residents to evacuate through leaflets, phone calls, radio broadcasts and warning strikes with unarmed shells ahead of live airstrikes.
However, the U.N. commission said that in many incidents "the weapons used, the timing of attacks, and the fact that the targets were located in densely populated areas indicate that the Israel Defense Forces may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties."
In its conclusions, the commission said Israel "released insufficient information regarding the specific military objectives of its attacks." It also noted Israel refused to allow its investigators to enter Gaza.
The report also criticized Hamas, saying that its rocket attacks toward Israel "caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians, especially those living in the southern regions."
It also noted that while Israel had taken steps to investigate its own alleged violations, it concluded that "investigations by Palestinian authorities are woefully inadequate."
It also condemned the extrajudicial killings in Gaza of alleged "collaborators," which it also called a potential war crime.