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Israel's Ambassador to the UN Eviatar Manor listens to a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay opened an emergency debate in the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council with an assessment that around three-quarters of the 650 Palestinians killed so far have been civilians, and thousands more have been injured. (AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)

UN Human Rights Chief: Israel Assault on Gaza Resembles 'War Crimes'

OHCHR estimates that among nearly 700 Palestinians killed more than two-thirds are civilians, including nearly 150 children

Jon Queally

The United Nation's top official on human rights said on Wednesday that Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip may constitute "war crimes" for its widespread practice of targeting civilian areas.

After two weeks of bombing, the Israeli assault has now claimed an estimated 680 Palestinians lives. Nearly 70 percent of those, according to UN estimates, are believed to be civilians, including nearly 150 children under the age of sixteen."There is a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.” –Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Speaking at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the agency's head, Navi Pillay, described the ongoing situation in the occupied Gaza Strip as both “dreadful and interminable” and said that  violence on one side could not, and should not, absolve the other from its own behavior.

Though she acknowledged and condemned those in Gaza who fire crude rockets indiscriminately into Israel, Pillay said such violence does not mean Israel can continue to ignore "its obligations under international law.”

Citing the Israeli military's widespread practice of targeting civilian homes in densely populated areas as well as the shelling of a well-known hospital in Gaza on Monday, Pillay said "there is a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

“Civilian homes are not legitimate targets,” Pillay said, “unless they are being used for, or contribute to, military purposes at the time in question.”

Other officials on the council spoke about the growing humanitarian crisis within the sealed-off Gaza Strip.

Lance Bartholomeusz, from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) which operates in Gaza, described the devastating human and physical toll on Gazan civilians living under Israel bombardment and reported that as of Tuesday, as many as 118,000 Palestinians—a full 6 percent of the population—had sought refuge in nearly 80 of the agencies emergency shelters schools.

As others have noted, with the Gaza Strip sealed off from the world on all sides, those trapped inside have "nowhere to run" and "nowhere to hide" to escape from the falling bombs.

“It is evident to those of us on the ground that the situation of the population of Gaza and of Palestine refugees in Gaza has become completely unsustainable,” said Bartholomeusz.

Speaking of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, he continued, the situation is beyond desperate and “there is a profound crisis of confidence in the ability of international law and international mechanisms to protect civilians, and to prevent and address violations of international law.”

Israel’s UN ambassador Eviatar Manor responded to the harsh criticisms of its policies by characterizing Pillay's remarks and OHCHR's overall condemnation as the council's “ritual of naming and shaming Israel.”

“There can be no moral symmetry between a terrorist aggressor," Manor said, referring to the Hamas government, and Israel, which he described simply as "a democracy defending itself.” 

Meanwhile, on the ground in Gaza, reports indicate that heavy shelling continued on Wednesday. As Reuters reports:

Gaza's Health Ministry said 49 Palestinians were killed on Wednesday, many of them in the southern town of Khan Younis -- one of the focal points of Israel's recent assault.

In the far north, residents continued to flee Beit Hanoun as Israeli tanks thrust deeper into the border town and destroyed nearby orchards in their search for hidden Hamas tunnels.

"Columns of people are heading west of Beit Hanoun, looking for a safe shelter. This is not war, this is annihilation," said 17-year-old Hamed Ayman.

"I once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Today I am homeless. They should watch out for what I could become next."

Gaza officials said that so far in the 16-day conflict, 475 houses had been totally destroyed by Israeli fire and 2,644 partially damaged. Some 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals had also suffered varying degrees of destruction.

And the Ma'an News Agency adds:

The continued Israeli offensive across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon left 32 Palestinians dead, bringing the total number killed since midnight to 56 as world and local leaders scrambled to arrange a ceasefire.

The high total on Wednesday afternoon came as Israeli forces continued their land invasion of the besieged coastal enclave while shelling and airstrikes bombarded the area from land and sea. The total death toll since the beginning of the operation 16 days ago has now reached 680, while at least 4,000 have been injured.

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