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Updated: Thu, 31 Jul 2014 14:19:25 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Gaza conflict: UN official says both sides committing war crimes



An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. A network of tunnels Palestinian militants have dug from Gaza to Israel, dubbed "lower Gaza" by the Israeli military, is taking center stage in the latest war between Hamas and Israel. (© AP Photo/Jack Guez, Pool)

An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. A network of tunnels Palestinian militants have dug from Gaza to Israel, dubbed "lower Gaza" by the Israeli military, is taking center stage in the latest war between Hamas and Israel. (AP Photo/Jack Guez, Pool) Jack Guez/Associated Press

The UN's top human rights official is accusing both the Israeli military and Hamas militants of committing war crimes in Gaza, where Israel is expanding its campaign to destroy Hamas rockets and tunnels.

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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday said that by placing and firing rockets within heavily populated areas, both sides are committing "a violation of international humanitarian law, therefore a war crime."

Pillay told reporters in Geneva she sees "a recurrence of the very acts" from the 2009 Gaza war in which the UN concluded Israel deliberately targeted civilians and might have committed war crimes, along with Hamas.

The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had harsh criticism for both sides in the conflict as he addressed the UN Security Council on Thursday.

"I have seen the catastrophic human cost of this war," said Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner general of UNRWA, speaking by phone from Gaza as he recalled meeting those who were wounded when a UN-run school in Jebaliya was struck by tank shells early Wednesday. According to the latest UN figures, 19 people were killed at the school.

"The precise location and coordinates of the school were conveyed on 17 occasions to the Israeli military, including a notification that the school was sheltering displaced persons," Krähenbühl said.

"I reiterate my condemnation of this attack in the strongest terms, reiterate also that it was a serious violation of international law and call for accountability, including the immediate launching of a transparent investigation by Israel and to share its findings," he said.

Militants rockets in schools

He said "another challenge" is the use of UNWRA buildings in Gaza to store weapons.

"On three occasions, we have found in empty UNWRA facilities rockets belonging to armed groups in Gaza. We immediately alerted all relevant parties to their existence and we strongly condemned placement of weapons in our schools," Krähenbühl said.

Valerie Amos, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, called for daily "humanitarian pauses" in the fighting to help aid reach civilians in the territory.

Amos provided the UN briefing with these numbers on the conflict:

- More than 9,000 homes in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, according to preliminary reports.

- Two of the three main UN compounds have been damaged.

- Twenty-four medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed, some hit multiple times.

- More than 130 schools and other educational facilities have sustained damage.

- Gaza's only power plant was struck on Tuesday, destroying the fuel tanks.

- Hundreds of thousands of people are without access to regular water.

As the conflict entered its 24th day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will destroy the Hamas tunnel network in the Gaza Strip "with or without a ceasefire," as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign in the densely populated territory.

Netanyahu's vow came as international efforts to end the violence seemed to sputter despite concern over the mounting death toll, with more than 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 50 Israelis, almost all of them soldiers, killed since July 8.

"We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said. "Therefore I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."

An initial Israeli aerial campaign against Hamas was widened into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then, the campaign has concentrated on destroying more than 30 cross-border tunnels that militants have constructed to carry out attacks on Israeli territory.

Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it has uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.

The new call-up orders to boost the number of reserves taking part in the offensive follow another day of intensive fighting, in which 116 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed.

It also coincides with stalled diplomatic efforts to end the war and reduced entire Gaza neighbourhoods to rubble.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli defence official said the purpose of the latest call-up was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line. However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening operations in the coming days.

Fifty-six Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side have died in the campaign, as Palestinians have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel — some reaching major cities — and carried out attacks inside Israel through tunnels beneath the heavily guarded frontier.

The violence has led to 440,000 Gazans leaving their homes. More than 12,000 UNRWA staffers in Gaza are helping to shelter 240,000 of them. The head of the agency said eight of his colleagues have lost their lives since hostilities began.

Israel has now called up a total of 86,000 reserves during the Gaza conflict, which it launched on July 8 to try to end rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.

Wednesday marked a second day of particularly heavy Israeli air and artillery attacks, at a time when Egyptian ceasefire efforts appeared to have stalled. Israeli media said late Wednesday that Israel's security cabinet decided to press forward with the operation.

Egyptian officials, meanwhile, met with an Israeli envoy about Israel's conditions for a ceasefire, including disarming Hamas, according to a high-ranking Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the delicate diplomatic efforts.

Hamas has said it will only halt fire once it receives guarantees that a seven-year-old Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt will be lifted.

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