A new report by a UN commission finds that Israel has committed war crimes by murdering civilians en masse, inflicting wide-scale civilian destruction, and collectively punishing Palestinians in Gaza.

Palestinian girls in Bureij Refugee Camp in Gaza on June 16, 2024. (Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory issued its “first in-depth investigation into the events that took place on and since 7 October 2023.” The report holds the Israeli occupation responsible for the ongoing catastrophic situation in Gaza. But it also alludes to the possibility that October 7 is a watershed moment for even harsher Israeli occupation unless international law is urgently implemented.

While both Hamas and Israel are found to have committed war crimes (including sexual violence), Israel is also sanctioned for committing “crimes against humanity of extermination, gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys, murder, forcible transfer, and torture and inhuman and cruel treatment.”

In clear and deliberate violation of international law, Israel intended to commit these crimes: to murder civilians en masse, inflict wide-scale civilian destruction, and collectively punish and dehumanize Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinians were murdered. They didn’t die as collateral damage or as unintended victims of Israeli military operations, but as Israel’s deliberate targets.

The immense numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza and widespread destruction of civilian objects and infrastructure were the inevitable result of a strategy undertaken with intent to cause maximum damage, disregarding the principles of distinction, proportionality and adequate precautions. The intentional use of heavy weapons with large destructive capacity in densely populated areas constitutes an intentional and direct attack on the civilian population.

Such widespread and systematic destruction of whole neighborhoods in Gaza is consistent with the application of the Dahiya doctrine to Gaza, in which civilian infrastructure is deliberately destroyed as part of a strategy of collective punishment, reminiscent of Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006.

The commission does leave the question of genocide for the ongoing investigation of the International Court of Justice to adjudicate. But it nevertheless accuses Israel of holding the whole civilian population in Gaza hostage to achieve its declared political and military aims. If Israel has falsely and persistently accused Hamas of employing “human shields” since 2008, the UN has yet again found that, in practice, it is Israel that employs this illegal tactic. Indeed, when opponents of the West take hostages, officials and mainstream media dub them terrorists. By violently punishing Palestinian civilians to achieve its political aims, Israel employs a textbook case of terror.

As stated in the Oxford Open Letter on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza as early as October 20, 2023: to think that the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas justify the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Gaza is to indulge a central tenet of terrorism — that all citizens must pay for the misdeeds of their governments — as well as terrorism’s central practice: collective punishment. As shown by investigative journalist Yuval Abraham, Israel does in fact use such terror tactics systematically in Gaza.

In addition to retribution, Israel has also weaponized aid as part of its war on Gaza and employed starvation as a weapon of war. The commission identified “an intention to instrumentalize and weaponize the provision of necessities, to hold the population of the Gaza Strip hostage to achieve political and military objectives, including the forced displacement of civilians from northern Gaza Strip and the release of Israeli hostages.”

While basic subsistence necessities are blocked by military siege, the “high acute food insecurity” is “the compounded result of the destruction and prevention of local food production, including agriculture, fishing and baking.”

Essential Palestinian human needs are callously violated and degraded by Israel, with the result that: “As of March 2024, the situation is continuing to deteriorate; 1.1 million people face catastrophic levels of food insecurity.” A policy of deliberate mass dehumanization of Palestinians is identified here.

If this is not damning enough, the report accuses Israel not only of failing to protect its citizens on October 7, 2023, but, through its illegal occupation, for being ultimately responsible for the root cause of violence in Israel-Palestine. This explanatory context is crucial.

Both the 7 October attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent military operation in Gaza must be seen in context. These events were preceded by decades of violence, unlawful occupation and Israel’s denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, manifested in continuous forced displacement, dispossession, exploitation of natural resources, blockade, settlement construction and expansion, and systematic discrimination and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Occupation as root cause is invoked in the report’s conclusion as well. It sits at the foundation of the sexual- and gender-based violence Israel intentionally uses against Palestinians to humiliate their community. “This violence is intrinsically linked to the wider context of inequality and prolonged occupation, which have provided the conditions and the rationale for gender-based crimes, to further accentuate the subordination of the occupied people.”

What, then, is the solution to Israel’s retaliatory and “persecutory acts”?

The end of the Israeli occupation. As the report states: “These crimes must be addressed by tackling their root cause; through dismantling the historically oppressive structures and institutionalized system of discrimination against Palestinians, which are at the core of the occupation.”

Despite official talk about fighting terrorism and Israel’s bogus right to defend itself against those it occupies, identifying the occupation as the underlying reason for violence is key. It ultimately puts the onus of responsibility on Israel itself, where peace can only be achieved “by strict adherence to international law” — by ending the Israeli occupation and recognizing the Palestinian right of self-determination.

In an atmosphere in which explaining context and identifying root causes are tarred with antisemitism or justifying terror, the commission’s sober conclusion is a powerful defense of the oppressed.

Importantly, a note of warning is sounded at the end. October 7 might well usher in more occupation rather than peace. It’s a significant historic judgment to contemplate: “7 October 2023 has marked a clear turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians, and it presents a watershed moment that can change the direction of this conflict; with a real risk of further solidifying and expanding the occupation.”

Even though Israel, in line with its legal obligations as occupier, owes Palestinians reparations for destroying Gaza and should reconstruct Gaza now, it is likely to do the opposite: entrench its occupation, unleash its settlers in the West Bank even further, and block any meaningful restitution of Palestinian life in Gaza.

This is, in part, a judgment on the catastrophic effect of Hamas’s October 7 military operation on the Palestinians. It is a clear recognition that the current balance of power obviates against Palestinian rights — as well as an implicit acknowledgement of the obstacles that stand in the way of turning the real assets of international law to political reality.

Ending the Israeli occupation requires a coherent Palestinian strategy of emancipation that uses the impressive widespread grassroot support for this just cause across the world and helps transform global solidarity to state policies, isolating Israel internationally and forcing it to pay the costs of its illegal occupation. This is the challenge that Palestinians now face after the Gaza nakba.

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