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The U.N. report on Israel’s Gaza war: What you need to know

Children eat inside the rubble of their home, which was destroyed in last summer's Israel-Hamas war, in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City on June 20, 2015. (Adel Hana/AP)

The long-anticipated report of the U.N. Human Rights Council on last year's war in the Gaza Strip directed criticism at both sides of the conflict — Israel and Palestinian armed factions, primarily the Islamist group Hamas. Its findings predictably riled the Israeli government, which slammed the United Nations' rather even-handed approach as "biased." Here's what you need to know.

Both Israel and Palestinian militant groups may be guilty of war crimes

The 183-page report found both parties in last summer's 50-day Gaza war guilty of what may potentially amount to war crimes.

A withering Israeli aerial bombardment of Gaza, combined with a ground offensive, flattened parts of the crammed coastal enclave and led to hundreds of Palestinian civilian deaths.

The report suggested that Israel's overall military policy during the conflict may have "violate[d] the laws of war." In particular, it bemoaned the lack of accountability on the part of Israeli officials conducting the war and expressed dismay that Israel did not alter its strategy of airstrikes even after it became clear that many civilians were dying.

More than 6,000 Israeli airstrikes, 14,500 tank shells and 35,000 artillery shells led to the destruction of about 18,000 dwellings in Gaza, as well as much of the impoverished territory's infrastructure.

The report said that "the fact that the [Israeli] political and military leadership did not change its course of action, despite considerable information regarding the massive degree of death and destruction in Gaza, raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law by these officials, which may amount to war crimes."

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired nearly 5,000 rounds of rocket and mortar fire into Israel, and the report expressed "serious concerns" at the "inherently indiscriminate nature of most of the projectiles directed towards Israel."

The report also condemned the extrajudicial executions of suspected "collaborators" with Israel that were carried out by Palestinian militant groups in Gaza after the end of hostilities.

According to the U.N. investigation, conducted by an independent commission led by an American judge, 2,251 Palestinians were killed during the conflict. This figure includes 1,462 Palestinian civilians, including 299 women and 551 children. In Israel, six civilians and 67 soldiers were killed.

"The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come," said Mary McGowan Davis, a former New York State Supreme Court justice who led the commission.

Israel rejects the U.N. report and did not cooperate with its investigation

Israel has a long, contentious history with U.N. investigations into its wars and refused to cooperate with the report's investigators, who were denied access to conduct their research in Israel and the Gaza Strip. The report was compiled on the basis of hundreds of witness interviews and written testimony.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects any inquiry that puts it on the same level as Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.

"Israel doesn't commit war crimes but defends itself from a terrorist organization which calls for its destruction. We will not sit idly by," Netanyahu said at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday. "We'll continue to act with strength and decisiveness against all those who try to harm us and our citizens."

For its part, the U.N. report said a lack of Israeli cooperation inhibited its ability to cast judgment over the nature of Palestinian attacks on Israeli territory.

The commission requested detailed information from the Government of Israel on where the rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza actually landed so as to make a more detailed assessment of the proportion of cases in which they were directed at densely populated areas in Israel. Unfortunately, the Government of Israel did not provide a response, which made it difficult for the commission to determine the extent to which attacks directed at the civilian population in Israel.

In the wake of what the Israeli military dubbed Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli government took pains to stress the "moral" character of its army and the cynicism of its foe. Its own investigation into last year's war largely exonerated the Israeli military and placed the blame of civilian deaths squarely on Hamas's tactics.

That contention is not supported by the U.N. report, which insists that the "onus remains on Israel to provide sufficient details on its targeting decisions."

Another report, issued by a group of Israeli soldiers named Breaking the Silence, raised even more questions about the Israeli conduct during the war. Testimony from some soldiers who participated in Operation Protective Edge suggested a lax attitude toward protecting Palestinian civilian life as well as the admission that, in some instances, Israeli forces fired "purposelessly" and used "ridiculous amounts of fire."

An end to suffering

The report's findings may feed into the growing case file at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where a prosecutor is weighing whether to launch an official investigation. Such a move, which, as my colleague William Booth notes, could place Israeli leaders alongside heinous fugitive war criminals such Ugandan guerrilla Joseph Kony, would deepen Israel's growing international isolation and its own sense of indignation at elements of the international community.

The report emphasizes the suffering and trauma of victims on both sides of the conflict. Hovering in the backdrop of the war, the U.N. investigators noted, was the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks under Netanyahu's watch.

"There were few, if any, political prospects for reaching a solution to the conflict that would achieve peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis and realize the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people," the report said.

That needs to change, as one empathetic Israeli citizen living close to the Gazan border told the U.N. investigators:

As long as the people on the other side of the border don’t have security and a way to live side by side, this is going to continue. I want to tell this to the leaderships of both sides. We need to achieve dignity and liberty for the other side as well.

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