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Human Rights Watch: Accountability Needed for Officials Who Authorized Lethal Force
Israeli forces’ repeated use of lethal force in the Gaza Strip since March 30, 2018, against Palestinian demonstrators who posed no imminent threat to life may amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Israeli forces have killed more than 100 protesters in Gaza and wounded thousands with live ammunition.
The United Nations General Assembly should support a resolution that calls for exploring measures to guarantee the protection of Palestinians in Gaza, and a UN inquiry mandated to investigate all violations and abuses should identify Israeli officials responsible for issuing unlawful open-fire orders. The killings also highlight the need for the International Criminal Court to open a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine. Third countries should impose targeted sanctions against officials responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations.
“Israel’s use of lethal force when there was no imminent threat to life has taken a heavy toll in life and limb,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community needs to rip up the old playbook, where Israel conducts investigations that mainly whitewash the conduct of its troops and the US blocks international accountability with its Security Council veto, and instead impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”
Kuwait has brought a resolution to the UN General Assembly that deplores Israel’s use of live ammunition against protesters in Gaza, as well as rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups at Israeli population centers, and calls for an end to the closure of Gaza and for the UN Secretary General to consider options to better protect Palestinians in Gaza. Kuwait sought General Assembly action after the US vetoed this resolution at the Security Council on June 1.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people who witnessed Israeli forces shooting protesters in Gaza on May 14, the day with the highest toll of deaths and injuries so far when more than 60 people were killed, and another who saw a journalist shot and killed on April 6. Seven of these interviewees not only witnessed people being shot, but were also themselves shot. The shootings happened at places where protests were held near the perimeter fences that separate the Gaza Strip from Israel, including east of Jabalya, Gaza City, Khan Yunis, and Rafah. Their accounts, along with photographs and videos, show a pattern of Israeli forces shooting people who posed no imminent threat to life with live ammunition. Israel should pay adequate compensation in all cases in which its forces unlawfully shot people or killed their family members.
Six of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were 200 to 300 meters from the two parallel fences, that in most places separate Gaza’s eastern periphery and Israel, on May 14 when Israeli forces shot them or people close to them with live ammunition. The victims include journalists, civil defense workers, and volunteers trying to evacuate the wounded, and a child running away from the fences.
Three other witnesses said that soldiers shot them when they were between 30 and 40 meters from the fences. These three include a 14-year-old boy and a 48-year-old man, shot in separate incidents, who said they had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli soldiers. A third man said he had approached the fences and thrown stones at Israeli forces, but that he was shot later, while attempting to evacuate another man who was shot and wounded. The accounts are consistent with numerous news reports and videos that show Palestinians being shot while standing still or running away from the fences.
Those Human Rights Watch interviewed said most of the shooting incidents they witnessed during the May 14 protests involved Israeli forces shooting people in the legs. But witnesses also described seven additional cases in which Israeli forces shot protesters who posed no imminent threat to life in the upper body, indicating that Israeli soldiers may have intended to kill them. One witness said he was shot in the back at a distance of 200 meters from the fences, with the bullet exiting his chest. Another said he saw a civil defense worker fatally shot in the chest 200 meters from the fences. Another witness said he saw a man in his 50s who was shot in the head when he approached to within 15 meters of the fences while holding a Palestinian flag. Two witnesses said they saw a man who was fatally shot in the head while being evacuated from close to the fences after being shot in the arm.
From March 30 to June 8, Palestinians have engaged in weekly demonstrations near the fences between Gaza and Israel to protest against the 11-year closure of Gaza and to commemorate the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees when Israel was established in 1948. Protests held on May 14 were also against the opening of the US embassy that day in Jerusalem. During the protests in this period, Israeli forces fired on demonstrators and killed 118 people during demonstrations, including 14 children, and wounded 3,895 with live ammunition who required hospitalization. At least 40 have needed to have limbs amputated, and hundreds more suffered severe injuries, medical officials reported.
The Israeli closure of Gaza, backed by Egypt, as well as disputes over funding between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have left medical facilities struggling to operate due to severe lack of electricity and essential drugs, medical disposables, and equipment. Doctors in Gaza have told Physicians for Human Rights–Israel they are powerless to provide needed treatment to many wounded patients. Israeli military authorities should reverse their policy of denying medical exit permits for Palestinians who were wounded in the protests. The Palestinian Authorityshould promptly issue required approvals for patients’ medical treatment.
During the weekly protests, the Israeli military shot and killed protestors on the basis of a policy, according to public statements by Israeli officials and a submission to Israel’s supreme court, to use live ammunition against people who approached or attempted to cross or damage the fences. Israeli leaders rejected repeated calls from the UN and the EU and petitions by human rights groups to change those orders and praised the military’s actions.
Israeli officials, including military commanders, apparently greenlighted the use of live ammunition against demonstrators. The officials include the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The vast majority of protesters were unarmed. Some threw rocks and “Molotov cocktails” (improvised gasoline bombs), used slingshots to hurl projectiles, launched kites with incendiary materials, and sought to damage the fences between Gaza and Israel. In one instance, four armed men fired at Israeli soldiers during a protest in northern Gaza on May 14, a witness said.
The UN reported that four Israeli soldiers have been wounded during the Gaza protests from March 30 to June 7, the first of whom was a soldier who was lightly wounded on May 14. An Israeli military spokesperson told the Guardian that no one had crossed the fences on May 14. “Our troops have not taken any sustained direct fire,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.
International human rights law standards on the use of force, which apply to law enforcement situations such as the Gaza protests, permit the use of live ammunition only as a last resort to prevent the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Israeli officials explicitly rejected human rights standards and argued that live ammunition was necessary to stop protesters from breaching the fences, because Hamas organized the protests so armed fighters could exploit the breaches to kill or capture soldiers or civilians. The use of live ammunition cannot be justified by automatically deeming every Palestinian who attempts to breach the fences to be an imminent threat to life, and in fact Israeli forces also shot medics, journalists, children, and others who were hundreds of meters away from the fences, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, because Palestinians in Gaza are entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions as an occupied people, any wilful killing of them would constitute a war crime.
A senior Israeli military official told the Washington Post that the only weapons Israeli forces used were live ammunition and tear-gas, not water cannon or other measures that Israel uses in the West Bank, which the official said lacked adequate range.
In addition to the barbed wire fence separating Gaza and Israel, the two-meter-high fencing with electronic sensors, ditches, and military watchtowers along the Gaza periphery, in 2015 the Israeli military built fences around 12 Israeli communities near Gaza with electronic sensors that detect any contact with the fence and automatically alert the military. This further undercuts the claim that the protesters posed an imminent treat.
Photographs, videos, and statements by surgeons indicate that Israeli forces fired on protestors using military assault rifles that fire bullets at high velocity. Medical journal articles, including by Israel Defense Forces trauma surgeons, have documented that gunshot wounds fromassault-rifle bullets cause severe soft tissue damage, have a high incidence of complications, and that “any delay at the scene of injury might jeopardize limb survival.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is examining alleged serious crimes committed in Palestine since June 13, 2014, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. On May 22, Palestine submitted a “referral” requesting the prosecutor investigate crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction, including crimes against humanity and the war crimes of willfully killing or willfully “causing great suffering, or serious injury” to civilians and the residents of an occupied territory. Crimes against humanity are criminal acts committed on a widespread or systematic basis as part of an “attack on a civilian population,” involving a plan or policy to commit the crime. Such acts include murder, persecution on political grounds, and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health,” according to the Rome Statute.
Given strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Palestine since 2014, including new population transfers into occupied territories, Human Rights Watch has called on Bensouda to open a formal probe consistent with the ICC’s Rome Statute.
“Impunity for unlawfully killing and maiming people in Gaza risks continuing the cycle where still more lives and families will be torn apart in the future,” Whitson said. “The UN Human Rights Council inquiry should identify and call for sanctions against officials implicated in ongoing serious human rights violations.”