International humanitarian law may have been violated in the Gaza conflict, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Jerusalem on Thursday as he wrapped up a three-day visit in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“I must be frustrated when after four weeks of armed conflict, we see the amount of destruction and the amount of victims which I saw and which we have all witnessed out of this conflict,” said ICRC head Peter Maurer.
He spoke with reporters after visiting Gaza and Israel’s southern border, where he met with Israeli and Palestinian victims of the conflict and with medical workers on both sides.
“There is a huge element of tension, so you can only explain this tension by the fact that the law has not been accurately and ambitiously implemented in this armed conflict,” he said.
When speaking of international law violations, he did not clarify who had violated the law – whether it was Hamas for firing rockets from crowded civilian areas, including hospitals and schools, or Israel for attacking Hamas while they were in residential areas and hospitals.
The ICRC, he said, was holding its own investigation, which it would present to all parties involved.
Until then, he stated, it was premature to draw any final conclusions.
Maurer added, however, that the Geneva conventions mandate the protection of civilians in war – something that did not happen here.
“Medical workers were targeted.
We want to know what happened,” he said.
The ICRC has launched a global campaign, “Health Care in Danger,” to highlight the plight of medical workers in conflict zones, who are increasingly the targets of military operations, he said.
On Thursday, he met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. On Wednesday, he met with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Maurer said he had spoken with officials in Gaza, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem about the need to respect international law.
“The objective of this trip was to put the plight of the civilian population center-stage,” he said.
During his meeting with Netanyahu, the prime minister asked for the ICRC’s help in recovering the bodies of St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul and Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin, who were killed during Operation Protective Edge.
With respect to charges of humanitarian violations, the prime minister and Ya’alon each presented Maurer with evidence that Hamas had endangered civilians and used them as human shields while operating from hospitals, schools, mosques and houses, as well as UN facilities.
“Hamas positions rocket- launching pads around heavily populated areas,” Netanyahu said.
He said Israel was doing all it could to prevent civilian casualties, as opposed to Hamas, which was committing “a double war crime” – targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind residents in Gaza.
The prime minister noted that Israel had agreed “time after time” to humanitarian cease-fires – including the one the Red Cross put forward – and that Hamas, in turn, had violated them “time after time.”
“Israel will do everything it can to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza,” he assured the ICRC president.
Netanyahu recalled their former meeting in 2013, in which the premier said Israel would continue to abide by international law but would not sit “with its hands folded” in the face of terrorism.
“Hamas bears responsibility for the tragic targeting of civilians,” Netanyahu reiterated, adding that “Hezbollah uses the same terror technique – taking civilians as hostages.”
In his own meeting with Maurer, Ya’alon told the ICRC head that “we did all we could, in accord with our ethics and standards, as well as our [Israeli] and international laws, in order to prevent casualties.
We regret every civilian who was affected, but this is a consequence of Hamas tactics.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations in New York is looking into the death toll in Gaza to try and ascertain how many civilians and Hamas members were killed.
The Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights uses reports from the media, as well as from Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, to keep count and to verify whether a person was a civilian or a combatant, the UN secretary- general’s deputy spokesman said in a press conference Thursday.
Jerusalem Post staff and Anna Hiatt contributed to this report.