New York: A UN-backed independent panel on Thursday said it has “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israeli soldiers may have committed “violations of international human rights” by shooting at journalists, health workers and children during last year’s protests in Gaza.
In its report, the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry focuses on the protests, known as “Great March of Return” that took place on March 30 last year, said it conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and sources, and gathered more than 8,000 documents.
“An integral part of the investigation was a comprehensive analysis of social media, and of vast amounts of audio-visual material showing incidents, including drone footage,” the report said.
The Commission comprises Santiago Canton of Argentina (Chair), Sara Hossain of Bangladesh and Betty Murungi of Kenya.
“The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel,” said Canton.
The Commission investigated every killing at the designated demonstration sites by the Gaza separation fence on official protest days. The investigation covered the period from the start of the protests until December 31, 2018. About 189 Palestinians were killed during the demonstrations inside this period.
It found that Israeli forces killed 183 of these protesters with live ammunition. 35 of these fatalities were children, while three were clearly marked paramedics, and two were clearly marked journalists, according to the report.
According to the Commission’s data analysis, the Israeli forces injured 6,106 Palestinians with live ammunition at the protest sites during this period. Another 3,098 Palestinians were injured by bullet fragmentation, rubber-coated metal bullets or by hits from tear gas canisters.
“Four Israeli soldiers were injured at the demonstrations. Four Israeli soldiers were injured at the demonstrations. One Israeli soldier was killed on a protest day but outside the protest sites,” it said.
“There can be no justification for killing and injuring journalists, medics, and persons who pose no imminent threat of death or serious injury to those around them. Particularly alarming is the targeting of children and persons with disabilities. Many young persons’ lives have been altered forever. 122 people have had a limb amputated since 30 March last year. Twenty of these amputees are children,” said Hossain.
The Commission took note of the Israeli claim that the protests by the separation fence masked “terror activities” by Palestinian armed groups.
However, it found that the demonstrations were civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims. Despite some acts of significant violence, the Commission found that the demonstrations did not constitute combat or military campaigns.
“The Commission found that some members of the Higher National Committee organising the protests, which includes Hamas representatives, encouraged or defended demonstrators’ use of indiscriminate incendiary kites and balloons, causing fear among civilians and significant damage to property in southern Israel,” the report further said.
The report concluded that Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, failed to prevent these acts.
“The Commission will place the relevant information in a confidential file to be handed over to the High Commissioner of Human Rights, to provide access to this information to national and international justice mechanisms. The International Criminal Court is already concerned with this situation,” said Murungi.
As the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return draws closer, the Commissioners urged all concerned to exercise restraint.
“The onus is now on Israel to investigate every protest-related killing and injury, promptly, impartially and independently in accordance with international standards, to determine whether war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed, with a view to holding accountable those found responsible, said Santiago Canton.
“We also urge the organisers, the demonstrators, and the de facto authorities in Gaza, to ensure that the Great March of Return is entirely peaceful, as it is intended to be,” Canton added.