Human Rights Council-appointed investigators urged Israel on Monday to revise its military rules of engagement, shortly before the one-year anniversary of the start of mass demonstrations at the country’s border fence with Gaza, that have left hundreds of Palestinians dead and thousands more injured.
Speaking in Geneva, Santiago Canton, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, explained what the panel knew about the Israeli Defence Force’s relevant military protocols with regard to demonstrators.
“Under the rules, they could be shot in the leg at any moment,” he said. “While in theory, this key inciter status was to be conferred only when the crowd was posing an imminent threat to life, in reality - and that has been one of the main findings of the Commission - that was rarely the case.”
Mr. Santiago’s comments followed his assertion that the panel’s “main conclusion…is that we found reasonable grounds to believe that the Israeli Security Forces committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law”.
During last year’s demonstrations in the Gaza Strip - referred to as the “Great March of Return and the Breaking of the Siege” - the Commission found that 189 Palestinians were killed, 183 with live ammunition.
Victims included children, persons with disabilities – including a double amputee who was shot and killed while sitting in his wheelchair - journalists and medical personnel.
Less than two weeks from the anniversary of the beginning of the protests, the panel’s concern is to avoid a repeat of deadly demonstrations such as those on 30 March, 14 May and 12 October. “We hope that the international community gets involved in order to avoid more killings and more shootings during the anniversary,” Mr. Santiago told reporters after his address to the Human Rights Council earlier in the day. “I think that is why this presentation was important. It’s important that Israel change the rules of proceedings and stop the shootings, basically.”
‘Triggers were pulled 6,000 times’
In addition to those killed during weekly protests at the border fence with Israel, the UN panel underscored the damage caused by high-velocity bullets, which replaced the rubber bullets initially used against demonstrators.
“In the case of many of the killings, there were very small entry wounds and huge exit wounds,” Commission member Sara Hossain said. “We also have detailed evidence about the kinds of bullets, but also about the use of long-range sniper rifles, sophisticated optical aiming devices,” she added.
“We know that the target could be magnified in the sight of the snipers, so they could know the consequences of at least some of the shootings. But nevertheless, triggers were pulled, and the trigger was pulled more than 6,000 times.”
Asked about the legality of targeting unarmed protesters in a crowd, the Commission insisted that doing so based on individuals’ membership of an armed group was unlawful.
“We believe that in situations of crowd control and in situations that we deem to be civilian in nature, if there are individuals in the crowd that may be a legitimate target, you still cannot shoot at the crowd, because you may kill or shoot innocent individuals”, Mr. Santiago said.
Israel probe into 11 incidents welcomed
The Commission also welcomed inquiries into 11 incidents which Israel has said it will undertake, although Ms. Hossain called for more transparency.
“On the nature of investigations, for the ones from Israel, they have announced that there are these 11 incidents...but that is after one year,” she said. “And there is no announcement as to the progress of those investigations and we think that there is at least a moral obligation to disclose what the outcome of those is.”
The issue of demonstrators launching incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza was also covered in the Commission’s report to the Human Rights Council, Ms. Hossain said, noting that “significant property damage” had been caused in southern Israel.
In a related development on Monday, Human Rights Council-appointed Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza linked to the “stifling restrictions” on the Strip’s residents.
“Israel has maintained a hermetic air, sea and land blockade around Gaza, controlling who and what enters and leaves the (Gaza) Strip,” Mr. Lynk told the Council. “For nearly five million Palestinians living under occupation, the degradation of their water supply, the exploitation of their natural resources and the defacing of their environment, are symptomatic of the lack of any meaningful control they have over their daily lives.”
A major concern is the “collapse of natural sources of drinking water in Gaza and the inability of Palestinians to access most of their water sources in the West Bank”, the Special Rapporteur said.
Scale of Gaza victims’ needs is immense, warns UN health agency
Coinciding with developments at the Human Rights Council on Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) appealed for $5.3 million to help the many thousands of Gazans hurt and handicapped in the demonstrations.
“The sheer magnitude of trauma needs in Gaza is immense; every week injured patients continue to arrive at hospitals requiring complex long-term treatment.” said Dr Gerald Rockenschaub, head of WHO’s office for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
WHO reiterated concerns that the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Great March on 30 March could result in further casualties and an increase in people requiring trauma care and rehabilitation services.