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UN-backed experts accuse Israel, Hamas of war crimes in early stages of war

A United Nations inquiry found on Wednesday that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes in the early stages of the war in Gaza, and that Israel's actions also constituted crimes against humanity because of the immense civilian losses.

Israeli officials accuse the report writes of false equivalence, bias

A burned-out vehicle and several tents are shown in a rural-like setting with several trees shown.

A United Nations inquiry found on Wednesday that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes in the early stages of the war in Gaza, and that Israel's actions also constituted crimes against humanity because of the immense civilian losses.

The findings were from two parallel reports by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), one focusing on the Oct. 7 attacks and another on Israel's response.

The UN reports released in Geneva, which cover the conflict through to the end of December, found that both sides had committed war crimes including: torture; murder or wilful killing; outrages upon personal dignity; inhuman or cruel treatment; and sexual and gender-based violence.

UN-backed human rights experts said that frequency, prevalence and severity of sexual and gender-based crimes against Palestinians by Israeli security forces during the period late last year amounted to signs that some forms of such violence "are part of ISF operating procedures."

Despite noting denials by Hamas's military wing of sexual violence against Israeli women, the report said the experts had documented "cases indicative of sexual violence" against women and men near the site of a large music festival, a military outpost and several kibbutzim that the raiders attacked.

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The investigators also found Israel committed additional war crimes including starvation as a method of warfare, not only failing to provide essential supplies such as food, water, shelter and medicine to Gazans, but also acting "to prevent the supply of those necessities by anyone else."

Some of the war crimes, such as murder, also constitute crimes against humanity by Israel, the commission said in a statement, adding:

"The immense numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza and widespread destruction of civilian objects and infrastructure were the inevitable result of a strategy undertaken with intent to cause maximum damage, disregarding the principles of distinction, proportionality and adequate precautions."

Israel, which did not co-operate with the commission, dismissed the findings as the result of anti-Israeli bias. Hamas did not immediately respond to Reuters a request for comment.

Israel's diplomatic mission in Geneva responded that the report "outrageously and repugnantly attempts to draw a false equivalence between Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers and Hamas terrorists with regards to acts of sexual violence," and reiterated longstanding claims of anti-Israel discrimination by the experts.

The expert panel, who are independent and do not speak for the world body itself, was commissioned in 2021 by the UN-backed Human Rights Council to look into rights violations and abuses in Israel and the Palestinian areas it controls.

Findings from the report will be presented at a council session in Geneva on June 19.

Hezbollah commander killed

The war began on Oct. 7 when militants led by Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza, killed around 1,200 Israelis and took more than 250 hostage, according to Israeli government tallies.

Israel's military retaliation has caused the deaths of more than 37,200 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, displaced most of Gaza's population of 2.3 million, caused widespread hunger and devastated housing and infrastructure.

What looks like a brushfire in a rural area is shown, with smoke and fire and two people trying to put it out.

Major powers are intensifying efforts to halt the conflict in part to prevent it from spiralling into a wider regional war, with a dangerous flashpoint being the sharply escalating hostilities on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, backed by Iran, fired barrages of rockets at Israel on Wednesday in retaliation for an Israeli strike that killed a senior Hezbollah field commander. Hezbollah said it would increase the intensity and quantity of its operations against Israel.

Israel said it had in turn responded with airstrikes on the launch sites, fuelling growing concern of a bigger confrontation.

The Israeli strike in the south Lebanon village of Jouaiyya late on Tuesday killed three Hezbollah fighters alongside the senior field commander identified by Hezbollah as Taleb Abdallah, also known as Abu Taleb, three security sources said.

Several men in military fatigues and caps carry a coffin draped with multicoloured cover.

He was the most senior Hezbollah commander killed during eight months of hostilities, one of the sources said.

In Gaza, residents said Israeli forces had pounded several areas of the enclave on Wednesday as tanks continued to advance toward the northern areas of the city of Rafah, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian health officials said one man was killed and several other people wounded when a tank shell hit a house.

The Israeli military said that in the previous 24 hours, it had "eliminated a number of armed terrorist cells in close-quarters encounters" in the Rafah area and destroyed structures rigged with explosives.

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Blinken addresses 'workable,' unrealistic Hamas proposals

Negotiators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been trying for months to mediate a ceasefire that would free the Israeli hostages, more than 100 of whom are believed to remain captive in Gaza.

A proposal outlined by President Joe Biden on May 31 envisages a ceasefire and phased release of Israeli hostages in Gaza in exchange for Palestinians jailed in Israel, ultimately leading to a permanent end to the war.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Doha alongside the prime minister of Qatar, said he and partners will press on in the bid for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that Hamas proposed "numerous changes" in its response.

"Hamas could have answered with a single word: Yes," Blinken said at a news conference in Doha, Qatar. "Instead, Hamas waited nearly two weeks and then proposed more changes, a number of which go beyond positions that it had previously taken and accepted."

Blinken said some of Hamas's counterproposals were "workable" and that he believes the gaps that remain between the two sides can be bridged.

As Israel has continued assaults in central and southern Gaza that are among the bloodiest of the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not commit to end its campaign in Gaza before Hamas is eliminated.

With files from the Associated Press

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