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“Horrified’’ UN’s human rights chief calls for independent inquiries as more than 390 bodies are recovered in mass graves at Gaza’s Nasser Hospital

3rd May 2024
“Horrified’’ UN’s human rights chief calls for independent inquiries as more than 390 bodies are  recovered in mass graves at Gaza’s Nasser Hospital

Mounting calls for the UK to suspend arms sales to Israel amid latest war crime allegation

Harun Nasruallah

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said he is “horrified” by the destruction of Nasser Medical Complex and al-Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip, as well as reports of mass graves in and around the hospitals amid Israel’s war on Palestinians.

Volker Türk called for independent and transparent inquiries after Palestinian authorities said they had discovered three separate mass graves in Khan Younis containing 392 bodies with signs of executions and people being buried alive, following an Israeli troop withdrawal earlier last month.

“Given the prevailing climate of impunity, this should include international investigators,” Türk said, noting that hospitals are entitled to special protection under international humanitarian law, including “the intentional killing” of civilians and detainees as a war crime.

He went on to say that evacuees who had fled the hospital before the Israeli military’s departure recounted chilling scenes of “horror, mass killings, and arrests to the point the entire hospital turned from a place of healing into a massive graveyard.”

A spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office said it was currently working on corroborating reports that 283 bodies had been found on Nasser Hospital’s grounds, including 42 of which had been identified. “Victims had reportedly been buried deep in the ground and covered with waste,” Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva. Adding that “Among the deceased were allegedly older people, women, and wounded, while others were found with their hands tied and stripped of their clothes.”

Yamen Abu Sulaiman, the head of the civil defence department in southern Khan Younis where Nasser Hospital is located, said three separate mass graves were found at the facility – one behind the morgue, one in front of the morgue, and one near the dialysis building, where some of the bodies uncovered had medical tubes attached to them, indicating they may have been buried alive.

The Israeli army dismissed the assertion that it buried Palestinian bodies as “baseless and unfounded.” But it did say that during a two-week operation at the hospital in February, troops “examined” bodies buried by Palestinians “in places where intelligence indicated the possible presence of hostages.”

Zainah Haroun, a representative for Al-Haq, an independent organisation advocating for Palestinian rights in the occupied West Bank, underscored the importance of establishing “a thorough investigative mechanism” with full and unrestricted access to Gaza.

In his statement, Türk also criticised a sequence of Israeli airstrikes targeting Rafah, which primarily killed children and women. He reiterated his caution against a large-scale invasion of the densely populated area spanning 64 square kilometres (25 square miles), where over 1.4 million Palestinians have been confined against their will.

“Every 10 minutes, a child is killed or wounded. They are protected under the laws of war, and yet they are the ones who are disproportionately paying the ultimate price in this war,” Türk said.

“The latest images of a premature child taken from the womb of her dying mother, of the adjacent two houses where 15 children and five women were killed—this is beyond warfare,” he added.

Türk also voiced his disapproval of severe human rights abuses persisting in the occupied West Bank, despite international condemnation of escalating attacks by Israeli settlers, frequently occurring in the presence of Israeli Defence Forces.

“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,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research.

The European Union has also backed demand for an independent probe into the reported discovery of the mass graves. “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,” said EU spokesman Peter Stano.

Despite increasing calls to halt arms sales to Israel following the discovery of mass graves, the UK government remains steadfast in its unwavering support for Israel, expressing confidence that Tel Aviv will thoroughly investigate the accusations of war crimes.

Filling in for the Prime Minister in parliament on April 24, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was persistently quizzed on the Tory government’s decision not to suspend arms sales to Israel.

The Deputy Westminster Leader of the Scottish National Party highlighted the inconsistency in how arms sales regulations are applied when allegations of war crimes arise.

“Two years ago, when mass graves were discovered in Ukraine, this House united in condemnation and rightly treated these graves as evidence of war crimes, which Russia must be made to answer for. Yesterday, Palestinian officials uncovered two mass graves outside the bombed hospitals in Gaza. These graves also constitute war crimes, don’t they?” asked Mhairi Black.

Dowden defended Israel’s actions, stating that the UK expects Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to investigate any misconduct allegations. “Of course, we would expect the democratic government of Israel to investigate any allegations of misconduct, and that is exactly what they do, and it is exactly what the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister urge them to do.

“But I find it quite extraordinary that she seeks to draw parallels between the legitimate war of self-defence of Israel and the conduct of Russia,” Dowden retorted at Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Undeterred and having vividly depicted the severity of the suspected war crime on Palestinians, “including the elderly and the injured, some of whom were found stripped naked, mutilated, with their hands tied behind their backs,” Black reminded the Deputy PM that the UK’s own arms policy clearly states that even the slightest risk of war crimes is sufficient grounds to halt arms sales. “Given all we know, why then is the Prime Minister yet to do so?” she asked.

Dowden reiterated the UK’s trust in the Israeli government’s ability to investigate such allegations and stated that the Foreign Secretary had recently reaffirmed the decision not to change the advice regarding export licenses.

Dowden replied, “We continue to urge the Israeli government to investigate any allegations of misconduct. The difference, though, is that we can trust the Israeli government, a democratically elected government, to properly investigate those things.”

“Of course, we keep the advice under review. The Foreign Secretary has recently made it clear that he has conducted a determination and has not changed his advice regarding export licenses, and I think that is the correct decision,” he added.

Momentum, a left-leaning campaign group, heavily criticised both the Conservative government and the Labour Party for their unconditional support of Israel. ‘Mass graves—UK political leaders egged this on. Sunak still won’t restore UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency] funding or suspend arms sales to Israel. Starmer still won’t condemn Israeli war crimes. Complicity,” said the group on X.

At least 35,000 Palestinians, including 14,520 children and 10,000 women have been killed and 78,000 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7. The death toll in Israel from Hamas’s October 7 attacks stands at 1,139 with dozens still held captive in Gaza.

Photo: Decomposed and dismembered bodies of Palestinians are unearthed on the grounds of Hind Al Daghma Dialysis Centre, wing of Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza by Civil Defence Authority teams, following Israeli attacks on April 21, 2024,(Credit: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu Agency)



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