Documenting War Crimes
On 18 May 2018, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (S-28/1) in which it decided to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests that began on 30 March 2018, and to report to the Council at its fortieth session in March 2019.
UN Commission of Inquiry - MANDATE
UN Commission of Inquiry - REPORT
UN Commission urges Israel to review rules of engagement before Gaza protest anniversary
GENEVA (18 March 2019): The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory today presented its findings to the Human Rights Council, after investigating all killings and many injuries occurring by the separation fence between Israel and Gaza during the demonstrations last year.
The Commission’s report scrutinises the Israel Defence Forces’ directives for snipers’ use of lethal force against the Palestinian protestors.
“We present this comprehensive report with an urgent plea to Israel to immediately ensure that the rules of engagement of their security forces are revised to comply with international legal standards. The one-year anniversary of the protests is less than two weeks away. 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,” the Chair of the Commission, Santiago Canton of Argentina, told the Human Rights Council.
“We noted that a senior Israeli official recently stated to international media that each and every bullet received authorization by an experienced commander. When examining the Israel Defence Forces’ use of live fire against the Palestinian protestors, the Commission, however, found that application of lethal force was in the majority of cases authorized unlawfully. This inevitably led to arbitrary deprivation of life,” said Canton.
The Commission found that Israeli security forces shot and wounded 6,016 protestors with live ammunition in the period investigated. 189 died at the protest sites, 183 of these from live fire.
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.
The Commission found that the Israeli security forces’ Rules of Engagement contributed to the unlawful actions. These rules identified so-called “key inciters” or “key rioters” who could be shot in the legs for acts such as burning tires, cutting or breaching the fence, or exhorting or leading the crowd in approaching the separation fence.
“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 meters from the snipers,” said Canton.
“The Commission has 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. The Israeli Security Forces 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 Commissioner Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya.
“We welcome the recent statements by Israeli officials to media that Israel is now carrying out criminal investigations into the killing of 11 Palestinians by Israeli forces at border protests in Gaza last year. We urge investigation of every use of lethal force by the ISF,” said Murungi.
“Our investigations 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 6000 times,“ said Commissioner Sara Hossain of Bangladesh. “The snipers killed thirty-two 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,” said Hossain.
The Commission found that the total death toll of the deadliest day so far during the protests, on 14 May 2018, is higher than the numbers reported by the media. The Commission found that a significant number of persons also died in the days and weeks after they were injured. A total of 73 Palestinian protestors died of gunshot injuries sustained on 14 May 2018.
The Commission took note of the Israeli claim that the protests by the separation fence masked “terror activities” by Palestinian armed groups. The Commission found however 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 protestors was neither necessary nor proportionate.
The Commission also found that the targeting of an unarmed demonstrator based solely on the person’s political affiliation or membership in an armed group is unlawful.
“In the specific context of these demonstrations and given the large presence of civilians, targeting such persons while still respecting the humanitarian principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions would be extremely difficult. The 1,576 people who were wounded by bullet or bone shrapnel attest to the danger of bystanders being injured by ricochets, bullet fragmentation and shots going through one body to enter another, when snipers fire high-velocity live ammunition into a demonstrating crowd,” said Canton.
In two incidents that the Commission investigated, the use of lethal force by the Israeli Security Forces may not have been unlawful. In one of these, on 14 May 2018, when at least one gunman in Gaza fired a weapon at the Israeli forces from within or near the demonstrations at a temporary demonstration site. 21 Gazans were killed in response, some of whom were allegedly members of armed groups. The Commission found that on 12 October, by the separation fence in Central Gaza, another incident may have constituted an imminent threat to life or serious injury to the Israeli security forces.
The Commission found that some members of the Higher National Committee organising the protests, which includes Hamas representatives, encouraged or defended demonstrators’ indiscriminate use of incendiary kites and balloons, causing fear among civilians and significant damage to property in southern Israel. The Commission found Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, responsible for failing to prevent these acts.
“We also call on the organisers in Gaza, and on all protestors, to keep the demonstrations entirely peaceful and non-violent, in accordance with the principles set out by the initiators of this movement,” Santiago Canton added.
The UN Human Rights Council mandated the Commission on 18 May 2018 to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in the context of the large-scale protests in Gaza from 30 March 2018 to 31 December 2018. A team of experienced investigators and experts from OHCHR assisted the Commissioners.
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No Justification for Israel to Shoot Protesters with Live Ammunition
The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 Gaza protests
GENEVA (28 February 2019): The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory today presented its findings. The report focuses on the demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, referred to as the “Great March of Return and the Breaking of the Siege”.
“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 the Chair of the Commission, Santiago Canton of Argentina.
The Commission was mandated by the Human Rights Council in May 2018 to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in the context of the large-scale protests that began in Gaza on 30 March 2018. The Commission comprises Santiago Canton of Argentina (Chair), Sara Hossain of Bangladesh and Betty Murungi of Kenya.
More than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers, week after week at the protest sites by the separation fence.
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 31 December 2018. 189 Palestinians were killed during the demonstrations inside this period. The Commission found that Israeli Security Forces killed 183 of these protesters with live ammunition. Thirty-five of these fatalities were children, while three were clearly marked paramedics, and two were clearly marked journalists.
According to the Commission’s data analysis, the Israeli Security 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.
“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,” said Sara Hossain. “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.”
The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognizable as such.
Unless undertaken lawfully in self-defence, intentionally shooting a civilian not directly participating in hostilities is a war crime. The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that individual members of the Israeli Security Forces, in the course of their response to the demonstrations, killed and injured civilians who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat. These serious human rights and humanitarian law violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
The Commission took note of the Israeli claim that the protests by the separation fence masked “terror activities” by Palestinian armed groups. The Commission found however 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 applicable legal framework was thus based in international human rights law. This assessment did not change even though the commission’s investigation revealed that some demonstrators were members of organized armed groups. Others were members of political parties. International human rights law prohibits the use of force based solely on a person’s actual or alleged affiliation to any group, rather than their conduct.
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 Commission concluded that Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, failed to prevent these acts.
The Commission conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and sources, and gathered more than 8,000 documents. An integral part of the investigation was comprehensive analysis of social media, and of vast amounts of audio-visual material showing incidents, including drone footage.
The Commission was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to focus on accountability and identify those responsible for violations and alleged international crimes.
“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 Betty Murungi.
As the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return on 30 March draws closer, the Commissioners urged all concerned to exercise restraint.
The large-scale killing and maiming of 30 March last year, when 18 people were killed and over 700 people shot, and of 14 May, when 60 people were killed and over 1100 people shot, must not be repeated. “The shooting must stop,” said Sara Hossain.
“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.”
“The Commission finds that these protests were a call for help from a population in despair”, Santiago Canton reminded. “Not only Israel but also the de facto authorities led by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have responsibilities towards them. The Commission calls on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, and on all three duty bearers to comply with their responsibilities and improve the living situation in Gaza.”
The Israeli authorities did not respond to repeated requests by the Commission for information and access to Israel and to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
A fuller report, containing detailed factual and contextual information and legal analysis will be published and presented to the Human Rights Council on 18 March 2019 in Geneva.
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