UN chief defends “watered down” Gaza report

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - A detailed 184-page report critical of Israeli attacks on UN personnel and buildings during the Gaza conflict last December-January has been meticulously stripped down to a 27-page document — mostly due to political sensitivities and on security grounds.

Responding to charges he had released only a “watered down” version of the report by a four-member UN Board of Inquiry (BoI), Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon vehemently denied the accusation.

“I would like to categorically reject any impression, any word, called watered down,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I told you that this Board of Inquiry is independent. I respect the complete independence of this report.”

“You may ask all our senior advisors who have been working on this. I do not have any authority to edit or change any wording on this conclusion and recommendations. You should have no doubt about that,” he added.

The BoI, comprising Ian Martin, Larry Johnson, Sinha Basnayake and Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Eichenberger, was mandated to investigate the nine most serious incidents involving UN personnel and property during the sustained Israeli military attacks on Gaza during the conflict with the Islamic militant organization, Hamas.

The Israelis repeatedly attacked UN compounds even after giving several personal assurances to the Secretary-General that they would not single out the United Nations for any military strikes. These attacks resulted in deaths and injuries.

The destruction of UN property resulted in damages costing over 10.4 million dollars to the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and more than 700,000 dollars to the Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

Asked about compensation, Ban said he “intends” to seek reparations or reimbursement for loss and damage incurred by the United Nations.

“As you know, I have been carefully reviewing these recommendations with a view to determining what course of action the United Nations and I, as the Secretary-General, should take in future, if any,” he added.

But in a letter to the president of the Security Council, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, Ban explicitly said: “I do not consider it necessary for me to initiate any further formal inquiry in this regard, which are outside the terms of reference of this Board.”

Asked repeatedly about a follow up investigation, Ban said: “At this time I do not see it is necessary for me to establish any further inquiry on this issue. And whatever the cases there may be, where appropriate, I will take some action on a case-by-case basis on this.”

Ban also said that the government of Israel has told him it has “significant reservations and objections” to certain elements in the summary of the BoI report.

Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International representative at the United Nations, told IPS: “We are very disappointed with the Secretary-General’s reaction to what we have come to know [from the report].”

What the secretary-general seems to be telling the Board of Inquiry is, “Thank you very much. We are not going to conduct any further investigations,” Terlingen added.

She said there should be a broader inquiry into the Israeli attacks by the 15-member Security Council.

An Arab diplomat told IPS he does not expect any investigation by the Security Council because three of the permanent members, namely the United States, Britain and France, are “far too protective” of Israel.

“It’s a lost cause,” he added, pointing out that “Israel knows that it can get away with murder.”

He said the secretary-general will not pursue a broader inquiry because he is under pressure and beholden to the big powers in the Security Council.

The BoI says that in relation to some of the incidents caused by military actions by the Israeli army, “the Board found that it could not accept that sufficient efforts and precautions were made to fulfill the responsibilities of the government of Israel to respect the inviolability and non-interference with UN premises and property or to fulfill its responsibilities to protect civilians and civilian objects on UN premises.”

The Board concluded that the Israeli army’s actions involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to UN premises and to the safety of UN staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries and extensive physical damage and loss of property.

In the case of the UNRWA Jabaliya School, the BoI concluded “that the precautions which the IDF [Israeli army] may have taken as regards the UN premises were inadequate, while the responsibility of the parties with respect to the many civilians killed and injured outside the school, were to be assessed in accordance with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law, and requires further investigation.”

At the time of the attacks, the Israeli military defended its actions by saying that its military strikes were a response to Hamas mortar fire within the school premises, and that Hamas militants were hiding in, or had taken over the school.

The BoI report said it “found that these allegations were untrue, continued to be made after it ought to have been known that they were untrue, and were not adequately withdrawn and publicly regretted.”

The Board also noted that at the time of the writing of the report, the allegation that there was firing from the UNRWA Jabaliya school “remained on the website of the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

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