Civil Defense Authority teams remove bodies of Palestinians

Civil Defense Authority teams continue to remove the decomposed and dismembered bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks on Khan Yunis, Gaza on April 21, 2024.

(Photo: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu via Getty Images)

US Dodges Growing Calls for Probe of Mass Graves at Gaza Hospitals

"Somehow I don't think the U.S. State Department would defer to Russia as a credible source to investigate itself if a mass grave were discovered in Ukrainian territory it had occupied," said one legal expert.

While continuing to give Israel billions of dollars in support to wage war on the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration this week has declined to join the growing global demands for an international probe into mass graves discovered at hospitals in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Two journalists on Tuesday questioned Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, about the administration's response to the hundreds of bodies found at Gaza City's al-Shifa Hospital and Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis as well as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk's call for an independent investigation.

"Would you support such an independent investigation?" Said Arikat asked during a press briefing. Patel responded, "Right now, Said, we are asking for more information... That is squarely where we are leaving the conversation."

Patel added that "I don't have any details to match, confirm, or offer as it relates to that. We're aware of those reports, and we have asked the government of Israel for additional clarity and information. And that's where I'm at."

When Arikat asked a follow-up about potential U.S. support for a probe, Patel reiterated that the administration is awaiting information from the Israeli government.

Later, Niall Stanage asked Patel to explain U.S. "resistance" to supporting a probe, the spokesperson insisted that "it's not about resistance to this particular situation, it is me not wanting to speak in detail about something which Said posed as a hypothetical question when, from the United States' perspective, I don't have any additional information on this aside from the public reporting."

After Patel again stressed that the administration has asked Israel for more information, Stanage inquired, "And do you believe the government of Israel is a credible source in enlightening you?"

The spokesperson interrupted Stanage to say, "We do."

While supporting the six-month Israeli assault on Gaza that the International Court of Justice has found to be plausibly genocidal, the Biden administration is also arming Ukrainians' resistance to a Russian invasion. Brian Finucane, a senior adviser for the Crisis Group's U.S. program and a former legal adviser at the State Department, pointed to the latter.

"Somehow I don't think the U.S. State Department would defer to Russia as a credible source to investigate itself if a mass grave were discovered in Ukrainian territory it had occupied," Finucane said on social media in response to Stanage's questioning.

Meanwhile, European Union spokesperson Peter Stano made clear Tuesday that the E.U. supports an independent probe.

"This is something that forces us to call for an independent investigation of all the suspicions and all the circumstances, because indeed it creates the impression that there might have been violations of international human rights committed," Stano said. "That's why it's important to have independent investigation and to ensure accountability."

Human rights groups around the world joined the call for an independent investigation on Wednesday, as the official death toll in Gaza hit 34,262 with 77,229 people injured and thousands more missing and presumed dead beneath the rubble.

In an Arabic statement translated by Al Jazeera, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said that the number of bodies found in the mass graves is "alarming, and requires urgent international action, including the formation of an independent international investigation committee."

The group added that some of those killed were subjected to "premeditated murder as well as arbitrary and extrajudicial executions while they were detained and handcuffed."

Amnesty International senior director of research, advocacy, policy, and campaigns Erika Guevara Rosas said in a statement that "the harrowing discovery of these mass graves underscores the urgency of ensuring immediate access for human rights investigators, including forensic experts, to the occupied Gaza Strip to ensure that evidence is preserved and to carry out independent and transparent investigations with the aim of guaranteeing accountability for any violations of international law."

"Lack of access for human rights investigators to Gaza has hampered effective investigations into the full scale of the human rights violations and crimes under international law committed over the past six months, allowing for the documentation of just a tiny fraction of these abuses," she noted. "Without proper investigations to determine how these deaths took place or what violations may have been committed, we may never find out the truth of the horrors behind these mass graves."

Guevara Rosas continued:

Mass grave sites are potential crime scenes offering vital and time-sensitive forensic evidence; they must be protected until professional forensic experts with the necessary skills and resources can safely carry out adequate exhumations and accurate identification of remains.

The absence of forensic experts and the decimation of Gaza's medical sector as a result of the war and Israel's cruel blockade, along with the lack of availability of the necessary resources for the identification of bodies such as DNA testing, are huge obstacles to the identifications of remains. This denies those killed the opportunity to have a dignified burial and deprives families with relatives missing or forcibly disappeared the right to know and to justice—leaving them in a limbo of uncertainty and anguish.

Noting that the International Court of Justice directed Israel to preserve evidence in its initial genocide case order, Guevara Rosas said that "amid a total vacuum of accountability and mounting evidence of war crimes in Gaza, Israeli authorities must ensure they comply with the ICJ ruling by granting immediate access to independent human rights investigators and ensuring that all evidence of violations is preserved."

"Third states must pressure Israel to comply with the ICJ orders by allowing the immediate entry into the Gaza Strip of independent human rights investigators and forensic experts, including the U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry and investigators of the International Criminal Court," she added. "There can be no truth and justice without proper, transparent independent investigations into these deaths."

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