U.N. Panel Urges Investigation Into Israeli Shootings at Gaza Border a Year Ago


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GENEVA — As Israel braces for the first anniversary of deadly protests along the fence separating it from Gaza, a United Nations commission on Monday urged Israeli authorities to step up their inquiries into shootings by Israeli troops of Palestinian demonstrators during the protests, which investigators say may have constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The three-person commission of inquiry made its recommendation on Monday in presenting the United Nations Human Rights Council with its full 252-page report on a deeply divisive issue.

The broad contours of the commission’s report were already known after the release of a summary document last month that reported the deaths of 189 Palestinians, of whom 183 — including 32 children — were killed by live ammunition. The commission said snipers firing such ammunition also injured 6,106 Palestinians, inflicting many life-changing wounds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had denounced the summary document as setting “records of hypocrisy and lies, out of obsessive hatred of Israel.”

Senior Israeli officials said last week that every fatality was subject to some form of inquiry or investigation and that the military police had opened criminal investigations into the deaths of 11 individuals.

The commission chairman, Santiago Canton, told journalists in Geneva on Monday: “I hope Israel expands the investigation to all the killings and all the injured. That’s what we expect or hope Israel will do.”

Israel, however, said the report was legally and factually flawed. Senior Israeli officials in Geneva said it ignored the active role of Hamas’s military wing in organizing and manipulating the protests, as well as the extensive use of military-grade explosives supplied by Hamas, including grenades, mines and improvised devices thrown across the fence or carried by balloons and kites.

The officials estimated the number of Palestinians wounded by live fire at closer to 4,000 than 6,000.

Release of the commission’s full report came as another United Nations expert monitoring human rights in Gaza delivered a separate report critical of Israel’s expanding settlements and its extraction of natural resources for commercial use. That report also warned of a looming “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.

The Human Rights Council’s activity on Israel prompted pro-Israeli demonstrations on Monday outside the United Nations in Geneva. Senior American diplomats joined Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and pro-Israeli groups from around Europe in denouncing what it called the council’s anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitism.

Sensitivities were already heightened by the killing of an Israeli soldier in the West Bank on Sunday by a suspected Palestinian attacker, and by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The approaching first anniversary of the protests along the Gaza fence, on March 30, is stoking tensions on both sides.

After March 30, 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out along the fence on Fridays to demand an end to Israel’s draconian blockade of Gaza and the right to return to land that belonged to their ancestors in what is now Israel. Additional mass protests are expected to note the start of the first anniversary and beyond.

The commission was acutely aware of the context in which those protests erupted, Mr. Canton told the human rights council, but its report concluded, “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.”

Among those killed were three paramedics and two journalists, all wearing clothing that clearly identified them, the report said. At least 39 other paramedics were wounded by live ammunition as they provided medical assistance, and an additional 39 journalists were also shot, it said.

The commission said it had submitted a confidential dossier on individuals responsible for violations to the United Nations High Commissioner for human rights with the recommendation that she forward the information to national or international courts, including the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Israeli officials, speaking on the condition they not be publicly identified, said Israeli Defense Forces had strongly stuck to their own rules of engagement, permitting live ammunition only in situations that posed an imminent threat from an individual or group after all nonlethal possibilities had been exhausted. Snipers received a bullet-by-bullet authorization from an experienced commander at the scene, they said.

The policy was to not fire at a journalist, paramedic, woman or child, said the Israelis, who conceded that in the turmoil of fast-changing crowd protests “somebody could be hit by mistake.”

The arguments did not persuade the commissioners to change their conclusions. Their investigation found only two incidents that they deemed Israeli troops’ use of lethal force lawful. The report insisted that the protesters were overwhelmingly unarmed civilians, even if they were not always peaceful.

“Our investigations found that Israeli snipers used high velocity bullets and long-range sniper rifles equipped with sophisticated optical aiming devices,” a commission member, Sara Hossain, said in a statement. “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 6,000 times.”

The commission said it had heard that large crowds would turn out at the fence for the protests’ anniversary on March 30 and urged Israel to ensure its rules of engagement complied with international law. The excessive use of force that occurred over the past year “must not be repeated,” it said.

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