JERUSALEM — A U.N. investigation on Monday accused both Israel and Hamas militants of committing possible war crimes in last summer's Gaza war, finding that Israeli airstrikes on residential buildings caused many civilian deaths and suggesting Israeli leaders knowingly endangered them.
The report, which Israel rejected as biased, further strained its already troubled relations with the world body and could provide new ammunition in a preliminary investigation of Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Hamas, condemned for indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and its use of tunnels to infiltrate border towns, also rejected the report.
"We must remember that victims are not just numbers or collateral damage — that unfortunate word. They are individual people with human rights," Mary McGowan Davis, the American judge who led the investigation, told journalists in Geneva.
The war started July 8, 2014, after a chain of events stemming from the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by Hamas militants and the kidnapping of a Palestinian teenager who was burned to death by Jewish extremists in a revenge attack. Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas members in raids in the West Bank, prompting militant groups in Gaza to step up their rocket attacks.
More than 2,200 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed during the fighting, according to the U.N. Seventy-three people, including six civilians, among them a 4-year-old boy, died on the Israeli side. Israel has blamed Hamas for the civilian casualties, saying the group used schools, mosques and residential areas for cover and noting that Hamas repeatedly fired rockets from populated areas.
The Israeli military carried out more than 6,000 air strikes in Gaza during the war, including many that struck residential buildings.
Under the rules of war, homes are protected civilian sites unless used for military purposes. Israel has said it attacked only legitimate targets, alleging militants used the houses to hide weapons, fighters and command centers.
However, the U.N. Human Rights Council report questioned the timing and intensity of the Israeli attacks.
The commission said it investigated 15 strikes on houses in which a total of 215 people were killed, including 115 children and 50 women. It said many of the strikes took place in the evening or at dawn, when families were gathered for meals of the holy month of Ramadan or were asleep.
The investigators said there were strong indications that the attacks on homes "could be disproportionate and therefore amount to a war crime."
The investigators noted that targeted attacks on homes continued throughout the war, even after the scope of civilian casualties became apparent. This, they said, raises "concern that the strikes may have constituted military tactics reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels" of government.
Although Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation, the report noted Israeli claims that it took unprecedented measures to avoid civilian casualties. Israel ordered residents to evacuate through leaflets, phone calls, radio broadcasts and warning strikes with unarmed shells ahead of live airstrikes. It has also noted that Hamas repeatedly rejected cease-fire offers, prolonging the fighting and raising the death toll.
But the U.N. commission said that in many incidents, Israel "may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties."
The report also investigated three Israeli ground operations, and found that Israel used heavy weapons like artillery and tank shells in densely populated areas, tactics that "may not be in conformity with international humanitarian law."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily rejected the report.
"Israel does not commit war crimes. Israel defends itself against a terrorist organization that calls for its destruction and carries out many war crimes," Netanyahu said. He said the commission is "notoriously biased" against Israel.
Israeli pressure forced the commission's first chairman, Canadian law professor William Schabas, to resign after it was discovered he had done legal work for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Last week, Netanyahu accused the U.N. of "hypocrisy" after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized Israel for the death and suffering of Palestinian children during last year's fighting.
Neither Israel nor Hamas cooperated in the probe, and Israel did not grant the commission access to Gaza.
While Israel has long complained of bias, the stakes are higher now that the Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court.
The court has opened a preliminary examination — the precursor of a full-fledged investigation — into Israeli conduct in last year's war and its policy of building settlements in the occupied West Bank. In a statement, its prosecutor's office said it would review Monday's report "in the context of its ongoing preliminary examination."
The court can intervene in cases where a country is deemed incapable of conducting a proper investigation. The Israeli military has launched more than 100 investigations into troop conduct last year, but only has issued three indictments for looting.
The report said it is concerned that "impunity prevails across the board" and criticized Israel's "recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable." It urged both sides "to take immediate steps to ensure accountability."
Gaza resident Hatem Qdeih, whose 6-year-old son died after being hit by Israeli fire, said he would like the boy's case to be taken to the court. According to the report, the boy died after waiting hours at an Israeli checkpoint for medical care to arrive.
"This is a war crime in all levels, a crime against childhood, a crime against humanity," he said. "I call for bringing the responsible to punishment."
The commission's report also included tough criticism of Hamas — the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, is considered a terrorist group by the West.
The report said that Hamas fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars toward Israel, killing six civilians, including Daniel Tregerman, a 4-year-old boy struck by a mortar while playing at home.
It said the indiscriminate nature of these unguided projectiles and the deliberate targeting of civilians "may amount to a war crime." It said evidence showed that "the primary purpose of the rocket attacks was to spread terror among the civilian population."
It also criticized Hamas' use of tunnels as creating "palpable" fear in Israeli border towns and noted that Gaza militants' extrajudicial killings of alleged collaborators amount to a war crime.
Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, rejected the report's findings, saying it created a false balance "between the victims and the killers."
A report by the U.N. council into the 2008-2009 Gaza war, conducted by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, found evidence that Israel and Hamas both committed war crimes. Although Goldstone later backed off some of his key allegations against Israel, the report's harsh accusations remain a sore point in Israel.
Many Israeli commentators said the report was less harsh than expected since it included the Israel's key arguments.
--Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Fares Akram in Gaza City, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Michael Corder at The Hague contributed reporting.