Israel and Hamas have both committed war crimes since 7 October, says UN body

<span>Palestinians walking amid destroyed streets in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on Tuesday.</span><span>Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty</span>
Palestinians walking amid destroyed streets in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on Tuesday.Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty

A UN investigation has accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity on and since 7 October, the date of Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel.

The allegations were contained in two parallel reports prepared by a commission of inquiry formed in 2021 by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, chaired by the former UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.

The first report focused on crimes committed by Palestinian armed groups during the 7 October attack, while the second examined Israel’s culpability in the large-scale deaths of civilians in the subsequent Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Pillay, a South African legal expert, is viewed with hostility by Israel for her previous criticism of Israel’s human rights record. The reports constitute the first in-depth investigation into the events since 7 October by a UN body.

The commission, which has no power to impose any penalties, described serious crimes committed by both sides in the conflict, including by Palestinian armed groups during the attack on Israeli communities near the border with Gaza on 7 October.

It accuses Hamas’s military wing and six other Palestinian armed groups – aided in some instances by Palestinian civilians – of killings, torture, sexual violence and systematic kidnapping.

“Many abductions were carried out with significant physical, mental and sexual violence and degrading and humiliating treatment, including in some cases parading the abductees,” the report said. “Women and women’s bodies were used as victory trophies by male perpetrators.”

In a statement, the panel said it had identified a pattern of sexual violence by Hamas and concluded that these were not isolated incidents, but similar events occurring in different locations.

The report also described the desecration of bodies, including in a sexualised way, as well as decapitations and burning.

The commission was equally damning about Israel’s conduct in the war, accusing it of using disproportionate force that amounted to a direct attack on civilians, resulting in a casualty rate “unparalleled across conflicts in recent decades”.

The commission found Israeli authorities “responsible for the war crimes of starvation as a method of warfare, murder or wilful killing, intentionally directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects, forcible transfer, sexual violence, torture and inhuman or cruel treatment, arbitrary detention and outrages upon personal dignity”.

The alleged sexual violence by Israeli forces related to the stripping of Palestinian men and boys, pictures of which were made public by Israeli troops, which the report said was “intended to inflict severe humiliation”.

The report also accused Israel of the war crime of starvation, saying Israel not only failed to provide essential supplies such as food, water, shelter and medicine to Palestinians, but also “acted to prevent the supply of those necessities by anyone else”.

Rejecting the findings, Israel’s diplomatic mission to the UN in Geneva said: “The commission of inquiry has once again proven that its actions are all in the service of a narrow-led political agenda against Israel.” Hamas did not respond to a request for comment.

The report was published as Israel and Hamas traded claims they were committed to a ceasefire plan for Gaza, and accused the other of sabotaging it, as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, completed his visit to Israel and key regional powers.

The proposal, announced by the US president, Joe Biden, in May, this week won a rare endorsement from the bitterly divided UN security council.

While Hamas said it had submitted a “responsible, serious and positive” response to the ceasefire proposal that “opens up a wide pathway” for an accord, Blinken said the group had suggested “numerous changes” and that while some of the changes were workable, some were not.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Hamas sources had said its preconditions for a ceasefire included Israel’s withdrawal from all areas of the Gaza Strip in the first week of the deal’s implementation, and that if Israel did not do so, the release of hostages would be halted.

The sources appeared to suggest only the bodies of dead hostages would be released in the first phase to prevent Israel from reneging.

The inconclusive to and fro since the security council resolution was passed has underlined suggestions that while neither party wants to appear to reject a path to end the fighting, both are resisting formally accepting it.

An Israeli official said Hamas’s position amounted to a rejection of the proposal, because the group had “changed all of the main and most meaningful parameters”, Reuters reported.

The proposal calls for an initial exchange of elderly, sick or female hostages for Palestinian detainees held by Israel, in the course of a six-week halt to fighting. In the second phase, the ceasefire would evolve into a permanent end to hostilities and the release of all hostages. A final stage would launch a major reconstruction effort.

The phased structure in the US ceasefire plan aims to bridge the gap between the apparently irreconcilable Hamas and Israeli positions.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, previously said any proposal to stop fighting before Hamas’s military and governance capacity had been destroyed was a “non-starter”.

Hamas has said it would accept only a permanent ceasefire deal, after an initial temporary break in fighting collapsed last winter, and has reportedly asked for international guarantees of any ceasefire.Netanyahu’s coalition is reliant on far-right parties who say they will resign if he accepts the US deal. His political dependence on them has deepened since a moderate war cabinet member, Benny Gantz, resigned at the weekend.

Hamas, too, has factions that would prefer the war to continue, despite the cost to civilians in Gaza, according to a Wall Street Journal report based on internal Hamas communications. “We have the Israelis right where we want them,” it quoted the group’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, telling negotiators dealing with Egyptian and Qatari mediators in a recent message.