Israeli leaders who ordered troops to open fire on Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return rallies in Gaza last Friday, even though marchers posed no threat, bear personal responsibility for the deaths and injuries, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
They are responsible for “calculated” killings of unarmed civilians in violation of international law, the human rights group states, warning that Israeli leaders could face prosecution abroad.
In a detailed report on Israel’s violence against the marches that coincided with the Palestinian commemoration of Land Day, Human Rights Watch dismantles Israeli claims that the use of military snipers against civilian demonstrators was justified by a “terrorist” threat.
Human Rights Watch reaches two key conclusions: the Israeli violence against Palestinians was premeditated, illegal under international law, and ordered at the highest level; and Israel has presented no evidence whatsoever of any credible threat that would justify the violence it used on the day.
The report points to evidence of numerous instances in which troops targeted Palestinians far from the Gaza-Israel boundary fence.
The death toll from 30 March has now risen to 18 – the bloodiest single day for Palestinians since Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.
These include 14 Palestinians killed when Israeli forces opened fire on thousands of people taking part in rallies along the Gaza-Israel boundary protesting Israel’s siege of the territory and demanding the right for refugees to return to lands from which they were expelled by Israel.
Approximately 1,400 were injured, including around 800 people hit with live ammunition.
On Monday, an additional protester died from injuries sustained on Friday. The first killing on 30 March was of Omar Samour, a farmer tending his field at dawn. The same day, two Palestinian resistance fighters were killed in a separate incident in the north of Gaza away from the protest rallies.
And on Tuesday, Israeli forces killed 25-year-old Ahmad Omar Arafa with a bullet to the chest during a demonstration east of al-Bureij refugee camp, near the boundary with Israel.
“Acting on orders”
“Israeli soldiers were not merely using excessive force, but were apparently acting on orders that all but ensured a bloody military response to the Palestinian demonstrations,” Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director, said of Friday’s bloodshed. “The result was foreseeable deaths and injuries of demonstrators on the other side of a border who posed no imminent threat to life.”
“The killings highlight the importance of the International Criminal Court prosecutor opening a formal investigation into serious international crimes in Palestine,” Human Rights Watch said.
The ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has however for years been refusing or dragging her feet about whether to place Israeli leaders and commanders under formal investigation, despite a mountain of evidence turned over to her office by human rights investigators.
Human Rights Watch notes that in the days before the planned marches, “Israeli officials repeatedly proclaimed their intent to fire on ‘instigators’ and those approaching the border fence.”
Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot announced the deployment of 100 snipers and declared that “The orders are to use a lot of force.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic spokesperson Ofir Gendelman posted a video of a man shot in the leg, stating, “This is the least that anyone who tries to cross the security fence between Gaza and Israel will face.”
And on the morning of 30 March, defense minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted in Arabic that “Anyone who approaches the border puts his life in jeopardy.”
“Entering a zone declared off limits should not be a crime considered punishable by death,” Human Rights Watch said.
No evidence of threat
Tens of thousands of people are reported to have taken part in the Land Day rallies.
“While some protesters near the border fence burned tires and threw rocks, Human Rights Watch could find no evidence of any protester using firearms or any IDF [Israeli army] claim of threatened firearm use at the demonstrations,” the group’s report states.
Even the footage of demonstrations published by the army “includes no evidence of firearms.”
Israel did publish a video it claims showed two men firing at Israeli troops that day, but Human Rights Watch notes that “this took place in northern Gaza Strip, not on the eastern border where the Land Day demonstrations took place,” and that no demonstrators can be seen in that footage.
Israel also claims that some demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails.
“The Israeli government has not shown that the demonstrators throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails posed a grave threat to the well-protected soldiers deployed on the other side of the border fence, nor has Israel claimed that any Palestinian crossed the border on 30 March,” Human Rights Watch states.
Israel has reported no injuries to any of its personnel.
Some of these videos have already been widely circulated by media and human rights organizations.
Attempts at justification
In the days since the massacre, Israel has attempted to justify the killings by painting the mass civilian rallies as a provocation instigated by Hamas.
In a tweet, the army alleged that the dead included “10 known terrorists with track records of terror activity.”
But by making such claims, Human Rights Watch states, “the military appears to be trying to justify otherwise unlawful killings in a law enforcement situation based on alleged past activity.”
Human Rights Watch recalls that last year it documented senior Israeli officials inciting soldiers and police to kill alleged Palestinian assailants in the occupied West Bank “even when they are no longer a threat.”
And last December, Israel’s killing with a bullet to the head of Ibrahim Abu Thurayya, a disabled wheelchair user who was holding nothing but a Palestinian flag as he took part in a protest near the boundary, caused global revulsion.
The UN human rights chief called that slaying “incomprehensible” and a “truly shocking and wanton act.”
Journalists covering Friday’s rallies did not escape the extraordinary level of Israeli violence.
Ten journalists were injured, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
They include Ahmed Salem Muammar, who was hit in his lower abdomen by a live bullet, east of the city of Khan Younis, and Wisam Mousa, a photographer who was hit by live bullets in both legs while he was covering the protests from afar at the al-Bureij refugee camp.
Mahmoud Adnan Mdouj, a photographer for the production company Media Town, was hit by a live bullet in his right leg while he was covering the march behind the protesters, about 500 meters from the border fence.
The Committee to Protect Journalists urged Israel to “independently and credibly investigate” the incidents – something Israel has no history of doing.
Despite the clear evidence of premeditated slaughter and maiming of civilians, governments that support Israel – particularly the European Union and its members – are publicly feigning a high level of ignorance about what happened Friday.
The EU and many of its states failed to condemn Israel’s actions. Instead, they backed a call by the UN secretary-general for an independent investigation.
While on the surface that appears like a robust stance, it gives the false impression that the main thrust of what happened is disputed or in doubt. As the Human Rights Watch report confirms, there can be no such doubt.
Israel has for its part already stated that there won’t be an internal inquiry and it won’t cooperate with any international investigation.
Moreover, Lieberman and Netanyahu have praised soldiers for their roles in the slayings.
Israel has threatened Palestinian civilians with even more violence.
On past experience, there’s little reason to believe that either the calls by the UN secretary-general or EU for an investigation were anything other than meant to deflect demands for effective action.
Asked if the European Union planned any action to hold Israel accountable in light of its rejection of an investigation, a spokesperson for the 28-member bloc indicated that no such action was planned.
“We continue to believe an independent and transparent investigation as requested in the statement is needed,” the EU spokesperson told The Electronic Intifada Tuesday, referring to the EU’s response to the killings issued on Saturday. “And that to prevent further loss of life and promote return to negotiations, restraint is needed.”
The spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether the EU accepts the findings of Human Rights Watch.
This official shrug is in keeping with the EU’s longstanding policy of complicity with Israel.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is warning Israeli leaders that despite the impunity they enjoy at home and from governments around the world, they may yet face justice.
More rallies are planned by Palestinians in the weeks leading up to Nakba Day on 15 May – the 70th anniversary of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Human Rights Watch states: “The Israeli government should recognize that, even in the absence of serious domestic oversight, officials who order unlawful lethal force may become subject to prosecution abroad as a matter of universal jurisdiction or in international judicial forums.”