Gaza War: A United Nations human rights expert accuses Israel of committing genocide

  • Written by Imogen Foulkes
  • BBC News, Geneva

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The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed

A UN human rights expert said she believes Israel committed “acts of genocide” in Gaza.

Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, presented her report to UN member states in Geneva on Tuesday.

But Israel has already rejected its findings.

This comes amid increasing international pressure on Israel to stop the war or make more efforts to protect civilians.

Ms. Albanese concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold for genocide against Palestinians as a group in Gaza has been met.”

Before Ms Albanese could stand on her feet, Israel rejected her findings, with its ambassador describing them as a “blatant distortion of the Genocide Convention”.

For years, Israel has been exasperated by the UN Human Rights Council's agenda, which permanently devotes an entire section – Item 7 – to scrutinizing the situation in “Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.”

This agenda item was not approved by the United Nations itself, but by the member states of the United Nations, decades ago, and has never expired. No other country in the world has permanent scrutiny like this, and Israel considers it discriminatory and aimed at delegitimizing Israel. He refuses to attend the Council when Item 7 is under discussion.

But many countries, especially Middle Eastern countries, argue that the situation – in the absence of Palestinian self-determination through a two-state solution – requires continued investigations, and now that another conflict has erupted, that is even more difficult.

Since Hamas's brutal attack on Israel on 7 October, Ms Albanese has called for the release of the hostages, and does so again in this report. In it, it “strongly condemns the crimes committed by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Israel on October 7.”

But she has also been outspoken in her criticism of Israel's behavior in the war in Gaza.

“Anatomy of Genocide”

That is why her report was awaited with impatience and fear.

Ms. Albanese's choice of her title: “An Anatomy of Genocide” was not exactly diplomatic. Many member states, especially those that traditionally support Israel, will feel uneasy.

But UN special rapporteurs, although mandated by the UN to examine and advise on specific situations, are independent from it.

Genocide is a specific legal term, and Ms Albanese's report suggests that certain legal criteria are met.

It cites what it says appears to be Israel's intention to destroy the Palestinians as a group “in whole or in part,” a key provision of the Genocide Convention.

In particular, it mentions three elements that indicate the possibility of genocide:

  • Killing group members
  • Causing serious physical or mental harm to group members
  • Intentionally subjecting the group to living conditions intended to destroy it physically, in whole or in part

The death toll in Gaza, which currently exceeds 32,000 according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, the bombing of densely populated areas, and restrictions on aid supplies (which, the UN says, has pushed Gaza to the brink of famine), are record numbers. The report claims that there is all evidence of intent to destroy the group.

Palestinian welcome

Basil Sourani, from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, welcomed the report. He noted that international law had been violated by all parties in this conflict, but said that genocide was a serious crime that the international community could not ignore.

“Allowing genocide to occur does not only affect Palestinians… it affects all human beings around the world,” he said.

If Israel is committing genocide now with impunity, tomorrow we do not know which country will claim that Israel committed genocide, and [therefore] “I can commit genocide without accountability.”

Tala Nasser, a Palestinian human rights lawyer who also traveled to Geneva to hear the report, expressed her hope that the report would draw more attention to the fate of what she said were thousands of people arrested by Israel since October 7.

She added: “They arrested more than 7,700 Palestinians.”

“Eighty percent of them are held in administrative detention, which means that no charges are filed against them.”

She noted that their families had no contact with them, and they had no idea where they were.

Not surprisingly, Israeli diplomats are angry. Her ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Merav Elon Shahar, called the report “an obscene reflection of reality” and accused Ms. Albanese of questioning Israel’s right to exist.

Many Israelis are also likely to be shocked. To suggest genocide towards a state founded as a direct result of the genocide of the Jews committed by Nazi Germany would cause great insult.

In the wake of the October 7 attack, and the fact that many Israeli families are still waiting for news of their loved ones being held hostage, hearing such frank condemnation is difficult.

Noam Peri, whose father Haim was taken hostage, also traveled to Geneva. Her focus, of course, is on not forgetting her father.

“My father was kidnapped from his home,” she said.

“He is an 80-year-old person who was sitting in his house with my mother. He was brutally taken from there and has disappeared ever since. He has no contact with anyone in the world.”

But as this week's vote in favor of an immediate ceasefire in the UN Security Council showed, member states are running out of patience with Israel's behavior in the war.

Too many well-respected UN aid agencies have warned that no place in Gaza is safe, that families are now eating animal feed or grass, and that amputations of children are being performed without anaesthesia.

They all say that Israel is restricting vital aid supplies, and governments are beginning to doubt Israel's claim that the United Nations is to blame for the delays.

Many will not like Francesca Albanese's choice of words, but the content of her report will increase pressure on Israel to change its strategy.

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