UN calls for investigation into mass graves uncovered at two Gaza hospitals raided by Israel

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations on Tuesday called for “a clear, transparent and credible investigation” into mass graves discovered at two major hospitals in war-torn Gaza that were invaded by Israeli forces.

Credible researchers must have access to the sites, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters, adding that more journalists should be able to work safely in Gaza to report on the facts.

Earlier Tuesday, UN human rights chief Volker Türk said he was “shocked” by the destruction of the Shifa Medical Center in Gaza City and the Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, as well as the reported discovery of mass graves in and around the facilities. after the Israelis left.

He called for an independent and transparent investigation into the deaths, saying that “given the prevailing climate of impunity, international investigators should also be involved.”

“Hospitals are entitled to very special protection under international humanitarian law,” Türk said. “And the intentional killing of civilians, prisoners and others who are ‘hors de combat’ (unable to participate in battle) is a war crime.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel on Tuesday called reports of mass graves at hospitals “incredibly disturbing” and said U.S. officials have asked the Israeli government for information.

The Israeli army said its forces have dug up bodies that Palestinians had previously buried as part of their search for the remains of hostages captured by Hamas in the October 7 attack that sparked the war. The army said the bodies were examined in a respectful manner and those that did not belong to the Israeli hostages were returned to their places.

The Israeli military says it has killed or arrested hundreds of militants who took refuge in the two hospital complexes, claims that could not be independently verified.

The Palestinian Civil Defense in the Gaza Strip said Monday it had uncovered 283 bodies in a temporary cemetery at the main hospital in Khan Younis, which was built when Israeli forces besieged the facility last month. At the time, people could not bury the dead in a cemetery and dug graves in the hospital courtyard, the group said.

According to civil protection, some of the bodies are those of people killed during the hospital siege. Others were killed when Israeli forces entered the hospital.

Palestinian health officials say the hospital raids have devastated Gaza’s health sector as it tries to cope with the rising toll of more than six months of war.

The question of who could or should conduct an investigation remains a question.

If the United Nations wants to conduct an investigation, one of the main agencies would have to authorize it, Dujarric said.

“I don’t think it’s up to anyone to prejudge the results or who would do it,” he said. “I think it should be an investigation where there is access and there is credibility.”

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said after a visit to Israel and the West Bank in December that a court investigation into possible crimes by Hamas militants and Israeli forces “is a priority for my office.”

The discovery of the graves “is one more reason why we need a ceasefire, why we need an end to this conflict, why we need greater access for humanitarian workers, for humanitarian goods, greater protection for hospitals” and for the release of Israeli hostages, Dujarric said on Monday.

In the Hamas attack that launched the war, militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped about 250 hostages. Israel says the militants are still holding about 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

In response, Israel’s air and ground offensive in Gaza, aimed at eliminating Hamas, has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them children and women, according to local health officials. It has devastated Gaza’s two largest cities, sparking a humanitarian crisis and prompting about 80% of the territory’s population to flee to other parts of the besieged coastal enclave.