Israeli leaders responsible for the killings of more than 100 Palestinian demonstrators in the occupied Gaza Strip since 30 March should face sanctions, Human Rights Watch says.
“The international community needs to rip up the old playbook where Israel investigates itself and the US blocks accountability with its UN Security Council veto,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director, states in a new report on Israel’s fatal shooting of more than 60 Palestinians in a single day on 14 May.
Whitson says the world must begin to “impose real costs” on Israel for its “blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”
“Third countries should impose targeted sanctions against officials responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations,” Human Rights Watch states.
The rights group says that Israel’s lethal force against Gaza demonstrators “may amount to war crimes.”
Israeli officials named in the report as approving the shoot-to-kill-and-maim policy against people who “posed no imminent threat to life” include army chief Gadi Eizenkot, defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Separately, the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq published a list of public statements by Israeli leaders indicating intent to commit war crimes.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine witnesses of the 14 May massacre, seven of whom were themselves shot by Israeli snipers in different locations along the Gaza-Israel boundary where Great March of Return protests were taking place.
Six of the witnesses said they were 200 to 300 meters from the two parallel fences Israel has built along the boundary when Israeli forces shot 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,” the report states.
Three other witnesses, including a 14-year-old boy, said they were shot when they were between 30 and 40 meters from the fences.
Injured man shot dead
In one harrowing incident, 23-year-old Samer Nasser said he was part of a group that had been throwing stones and trying to approach the barbed wire fence east of Jabaliya when someone near him was shot in the arm.
Nasser tried to evacuate the man in his “tuk tuk” – a three-wheeled motorized vehicle – when Israeli forces “started shooting heavily.”
“The injured man in my tuk tuk was shot again in the head and immediately died, and I was shot in the thigh,” Nasser said. “I was bleeding for 15 minutes, and had to crawl until I reached a woman who helped me.”
A video taken by another Gaza resident, Jamil Barakat, shows that woman sheltering behind a rock as she gestures to Nasser and encourages him to crawl towards her.
“We were luckily not shot, but we were unable to move forward or backward for half an hour because they opened fire at us,” Barakat, who was also taking shelter behind the rock, stated.
Meanwhile, Maher Harara, 48, from the Shujaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City, told Human Rights Watch that “he saw a woman’s finger shot off as she was making a victory sign” as she stood about 40 meters from the fences.
Harara was himself shot in the leg in the same area a few hours later.
“I was not holding anything, even my mobile phone was in my pocket, and I was standing by myself, but maybe they shot me because I was wearing black trousers and a black T-shirt so they thought I was a leader, but I wasn’t,” he said.
While Human Rights Watch cites one instance in which four armed men fired at Israeli forces in northern Gaza on 14 May, it notes that the vast majority of protesters were unarmed.
The Israeli military admitted on that day that “Our troops have not taken any sustained direct fire,” and that no one from Gaza had succeeded in crossing the boundary fences.
One witness told Human Rights Watch he was “aware of a person who had joined the 14 May protests while carrying a firearm, but apparently did not fire it because members of Hamas warned him that doing so could prompt Israeli soldiers to target the area.”
Israel claims that its rampant use of live ammunition that has wounded around 3,900 people, causing many grave and life-changing injuries and compounding a medical catastrophe, is necessary for self-defense.
“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,” Human Rights Watch says, emphasizing the many instances of victims being shot far from the fences.
The group also responds to Israel’s efforts to justify the 14 May massacre after the fact by claiming that 50 of those killed were members of Hamas.
“Hamas’ encouragement of and support for the protests and the participation of Hamas members in the protests do not justify the use of live ammunition against protesters who posed no threat to life,” Human Rights Watch states.
The group urges International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open a formal investigation into violations against Palestinians that could lead to Israeli leaders being indicted and tried.
US, Israel isolated at UN
Human Rights Watch’s report was released on the day the UN General Assembly met to vote on a resolution deploring “any excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate force by the Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians,” as well as the use of live ammunition against protesters, children, medical personnel and journalists.
Despite intense opposition from the United States and Israel, the General Assembly resolution passed 120-8 with 45 abstentions.
The resolution also “deplores the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilian areas” – a rare occurrence – but did not name Hamas or any other groups deemed responsible.
The US had tried to insert an amendment condemning Hamas, but it was rejected.
The resolution that passed calls for no specific consequences to hold Israel accountable, merely asking the UN secretary-general to present proposals on an “international protection mechanism” for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.
Despite the resolution’s toothlessness, the vote was nonetheless another signal of US and Israeli isolation. The only countries joining the pair in voting against the resolution were Togo, Australia and tiny island states and dependencies Nauru, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands.
Notably, European Union countries were split between the 12 that voted for the resolution and the 16 that abstained.
France, Belgium and Ireland backed the resolution, while Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands were among the abstainers.
The same day as the UN vote, for instance, a coalition of organizations published a report highlighting the role of three French companies, including a subsidiary of the state-owned railway, in the construction and operation of Israel’s light rail to link its settlements in and around occupied East Jerusalem in violation of international law.
Earlier Canada had voted for the failed US amendment aimed at shifting blame towards the Palestinians.