Israeli forces committed violations against Palestinian protesters in Gaza last year that may amount to war crimes, a United Nations report said on Monday.
A UN Independent Commission of Inquiry found that Israeli soldiers used live ammunition against unarmed protesters, killing at least 189 Palestinians during protests near the separation fence between Israel and Gaza last year.
Over 6,000 Palestinians were also injured in Israeli live fire in the period between March 30, 2018, and December 31, 2018.
“The Israeli Security Forces committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” said UN Commissioner Kaari Betty Murungi. “Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel.”
The 252-page report scrutinises the Israel Defence Forces’ directives for snipers’ use of lethal force against Palestinian protesters, who have been regularly demonstrating along the separation fence.
“The Commission found there was no justification for Israel’s security forces killing and injuring persons who pose no imminent threat of death or serious injury to those around them, including journalists, health workers and children,” said Santiago Canton, the chair of the commission.
Canton said the commission, which presented the report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, had reasonable grounds to believe that during the protests, labelled the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers killed and gravely injured civilians who were neither participating directly in hostilities nor posing an imminent threat to the Israeli Security Forces, or to the civilian population in Israel.
“When examining the Israel Defence Forces’ use of live fire against the Palestinian protesters, the Commission, however, found that application of lethal force was in the majority of cases authorised unlawfully. This inevitably led to arbitrary deprivation of life,” said Canton.
The Commissioner Canton called upon Israel to immediately ensure that the rules of engagement of their security forces are revised to comply with international legal standards, especially in view of the one-year anniversary of the protests.
“We hear that crowds are going to be large at the official protest sites. The excessive use of force that took place on 30 March, 14 May and 12 October 2018 must not be repeated,” Canton said.
Israeli security forces shot and wounded 6,016 protesters with live ammunition in the period investigated, while 189 people died at the protest sites, 183 of these from live fire. A significant number of persons also died in the days and weeks after they were injured. A total of 73 Palestinian protesters died of gunshot injuries sustained on May 14, 2018.
“We strongly disagree with the suggestion that the targeting of these demonstrators meets the high human rights standards for using lethal force. Under these rules of engagement, 4,903 unarmed persons were shot in the lower limbs, many while standing hundreds of metres from the snipers,” said Canton.
Velocity bullets and rifles
The investigation found that Israeli snipers used high velocity bullets and long-range sniper rifles equipped with sophisticated optical aiming devices. “They saw the target magnified in their sight and they knew the consequences of shooting, but still pulled the trigger, not once or twice but more than 6,000 times,” said Commissioner Sara Hossain.
“The snipers killed 32 children, three clearly marked paramedics, and two clearly marked journalists. They shot at unarmed protesters, children and disabled persons, and at health workers and journalists performing their duties, knowing who they were,” she said.
Israel said it is now carrying out criminal investigations into the killing of 11 Palestinians but the commissioners called for an investigation of all the incidents where Palestinians were either killed or permanently disabled.
Israel claims that the protests by the separation fence masked “terror activities” by Palestinian armed groups. However, the commission found that the demonstrations were almost entirely civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims and did not constitute combat or military campaigns.
While the demonstrations were at times violent, with many protesters hurling stones, cutting through the separation fence at points, and launching kites and balloons with burning coals and rags attached to them, the commission found that the use of lethal force against the protester was neither necessary nor proportionate. Only in two incidents the use of lethal force by the Israeli security forces may not have been unlawful.