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Coveney says 'it's too early to tell' if Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza

The Foreign Minister condemned the killing of civilians, especially children, in the last week.

The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike on Saturday
The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike on Saturday

Updated May 16th 2021, 8:00 PM

FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER Simon Coveney has said it is “too early to tell” if Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza in the past week.

Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting this afternoon, Coveney said the international community has to intervene in a bid to stop the escalating violence in the region.

“Civilians in Gaza have nowhere to flee,” said Coveney.

“They are a population under siege, not just now in the midst of this cycle of violence but consistently and this has got to end for their sake and for the sake of all Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“We demand an immediate end to the violence which poisons their future.”

Coveney said that the UN Security Council has a “collective responsibility” to speak with one voice and to be strong on ending attacks on Gaza.

When asked if Israel has committed war crimes, Coveney told RTÉ’s This Week programme: “It’s too early to tell, to be honest. I think there’s a responsibility on the Security Council to make an independent assessment of that.

“And I think the focus for today, for now, has to be to stop the killing, first and foremost, to de-escalate tension, to get a ceasefire to stop rockets being fired from Gaza, and to stop the horrific casualties of the response to those from Israel.”

Coveney said Israel “of course has a right to defend itself, but it does not have a right to defend itself in a way that results in so many civilians and children being brutalised in the way that we’re seeing right now”.

The minister said that of the 180 fatalities to date, over 50 are children – making up more than one in four of those killed.

“I’ve been quite vocal this week in expressing very serious concerns that what we’re seeing now over the last seven days is resulting in a level of suffering of a civilian population and of course a loss of life, particularly of children.”

Coveney, who is due to speak at the Security Council meeting today, noted that Gaza “is a tiny strip of land, it’s 25 miles long by about six miles wide”.

“Over two million people live in Gaza. There is no escape route,” he said. “So even if families want to escape the violence and the horror of bombs that they’re hearing every single night, they can’t get out. And so, the international community has got to speak up here.”

Dozens dead in attack

Earlier it was reported that Israeli airstrikes in the heart of Gaza City had flattened three buildings and killed at least 42 people, making it the deadliest single attack since heavy fighting broke out between Israel and the territory’s militant Hamas rulers nearly a week ago.

The Gaza health ministry said 16 women and eight children were among those killed in today’s attack, with another 50 people injured.

Rescuers raced to pull survivors and bodies from the rubble following the assault.

Earlier, Israel said it had bombed the home of Gaza’s top Hamas leader in a separate strike. It was the third such air attack targeting the homes of Hamas leaders in the last two days.

Israel appears to have stepped up its airstrikes in recent days to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas, as efforts to broker a ceasefire accelerate with the arrival of a US diplomat in the region and talks at the UN Security Council.

The military said it struck the homes of Yehiya Sinwar, the most senior Hamas leader inside the territory, and his brother Muhammad, another senior Hamas member. On Saturday it destroyed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas’s political branch.

Brigadier general Hidai Zilberman confirmed the strike on Sinwar’s house in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis to army radio. He said the home of his brother, who is in charge of Hamas “logistics and personnel”, was also destroyed.

Hamas’s upper echelon has gone into hiding in Gaza, and it is unlikely any were at home at the time of the strikes. Its top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, divides his time between Turkey and Qatar, both of which provide political support to the group.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have acknowledged 20 fighters have been killed since the fighting broke out last Monday, while Israel says the real number is far higher.

Hamas and other militant groups have fired some 2,900 rockets into Israel since Monday, when tensions over a holy site in Jerusalem and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families from a nearby neighbourhood boiled over.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes across the impoverished and blockaded territory, which is home to more than two million Palestinians, and brought down a number of high-rise buildings – including one that housed The Associated Press office in Gaza.

Media airstrike

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since defended the strike on the Gaza tower that housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera bureaus, alleging it also hosted a Palestinian “terrorist” intelligence office.

“Here’s the intelligence we had,” Netanyahu told CBS News. “An intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organization (was) housed in that building that plots and organizes the terror attacks against Israeli civilians.”

“So it is a perfectly legitimate target. I can tell you that we took every precaution to make sure that there were no civilian injuries, in fact, no deaths,” Netanyahu told the network’s show “Face the Nation.”

The Associated Press said Israel had not yet provided it with evidence of militant activity in the building, which was reduced to rubble by the strike.

“What the AP would like is… an independent investigation into what happened yesterday,” AP executive editor Sally Buzbee told CNN.

“We’re in a conflict situation. We do not take sides in that conflict. We have heard the Israelis say they have evidence. We don’t know what that evidence is.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres today pleaded for an immediate end to the outbreak of deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence, warning that the fighting could plunge the region into an “uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis.”

Guterres earlier said he was “deeply disturbed” by Israel’s strike on Saturday on the tower housing the media bureaus.

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US President Joe Biden yesterday underscored Israel’s right to defend itself in a phone call with Netanyahu but also expressed “grave concern” over the violence as well as for the safety of journalists.

UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is meeting in a public session this afternoon. Israel ally Washington, which had blocked a UNSC meeting scheduled for Friday, has been criticised for not doing enough to stem the bloodshed.

Earlier yesterday, Biden also spoke to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in their first call since the US president took office.

US Secretary for Israel-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr is due to hold talks today with Israeli leaders before meeting Palestinian officials to seek a “sustainable calm”, the State Department said.

In a televised statement last night, Netanyahu thanked Biden for “unequivocal support”.

European Union foreign ministers will hold urgent video talks on the escalating fighting on Tuesday, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said today.

“In view of the ongoing escalation between Israel and Palestine and the unacceptable number of civilian casualties, I am convening an extraordinary VTC of the EU Foreign Ministers on Tuesday,” Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter.

“We will coordinate and discuss how the EU can best contribute to end the current violence.”

Contains reporting from Tadgh McNally, © AFP 2021 and PA 

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Órla Ryan

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