Israeli forces’ repeated use of lethal force in the Gaza Strip since March 30, 2018, against Palestinian demonstrators who posed no imminent threat to life may amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.
Israeli forces have killed more than 100 protesters in Gaza and wounded thousands with live ammunition.The United Nations General Assembly should support a resolution that calls for exploring measures to guarantee the protection of Palestinians in Gaza, and a UN inquiry mandated to investigate all violations and abuses should identify Israeli officials responsible for issuing unlawful open-fire orders. The killings also highlight the need for the International Criminal Court to open a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.
Third countries should impose targeted sanctions against officials responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations.“Israel’s use of lethal force when there was no imminent threat to life has taken a heavy toll in life and limb,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community needs to rip up the old playbook, where Israel conducts investigations that mainly whitewash the conduct of its troops and the US blocks international accountability with its Security Council veto, and instead impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”Kuwait has brought a resolution to the UN General Assembly that deplores Israel’s use of live ammunition against protesters in Gaza, as well as rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups at Israeli population centers, and calls for an end to the closure of Gaza and for the UN Secretary General to consider options to better protect Palestinians in Gaza. Kuwait sought General Assembly action after the US vetoed this resolution at the Security Council on June 1.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people who witnessed Israeli forces shooting protesters in Gaza on May 14, the day with the highest toll of deaths and injuries so far when more than 60 people were killed, and another who saw a journalist shot and killed on April 6. Seven of these interviewees not only witnessed people being shot, but were also themselves shot. The shootings happened at places where protests were held near the perimeter fences that separate the Gaza Strip from Israel, including east of Jabalya, Gaza City, Khan Yunis, and Rafah. Their accounts, along with photographs and videos, show a pattern of Israeli forces shooting people who posed no imminent threat to life with live ammunition. Israel should pay adequate compensation in all cases in which its forces unlawfully shot people or killed their family members.Six of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were 200 to 300 meters from the two parallel fences, that in most places separate Gaza’s eastern periphery and Israel, on May 14 when Israeli forces shot them or people close to 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.Three other witnesses said that soldiers shot them when they were between 30 and 40 meters from the fences. These three include a 14-year-old boy and a 48-year-old man, shot in separate incidents, who said they had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli soldiers. A third man said he had approached the fences and thrown stones at Israeli forces, but that he was shot later, while attempting to evacuate another man who was shot and wounded.
The accounts are consistent with numerous news reports and videos that show Palestinians being shot while standing still or running away from the fences.Those Human Rights Watch interviewed said most of the shooting incidents they witnessed during the May 14 protests involved Israeli forces shooting people in the legs. But witnesses also described seven additional cases in which Israeli forces shot protesters who posed no imminent threat to life in the upper body, indicating that Israeli soldiers may have intended to kill them. One witness said he was shot in the back at a distance of 200 meters from the fences, with the bullet exiting his chest. Another said he saw a civil defense worker fatally shot in the chest 200 meters from the fences. Another witness said he saw a man in his 50s who was shot in the head when he approached to within 15 meters of the fences while holding a Palestinian flag. Two witnesses said they saw a man who was fatally shot in the head while being evacuated from close to the fences after being shot in the arm.From March 30 to June 8, Palestinians have engaged in weekly demonstrations near the fences between Gaza and Israel to protest against the 11-year closure of Gaza and to commemorate the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees when Israel was established in 1948.
Protests held on May 14 were also against the opening of the US embassy that day in Jerusalem. During the protests in this period, Israeli forces fired on demonstrators and killed 118 people during demonstrations, including 14 children, and wounded 3,895 with live ammunition who required hospitalization. At least 40 have needed to have limbs amputated, and hundreds more suffered severe injuries, medical officials reported.The Israeli closure of Gaza, backed by Egypt, as well as disputes over funding between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have left medical facilities struggling to operate due to severe lack of electricity and essential drugs, medical disposables, and equipment. Doctors in Gaza have told Physicians for Human Rights–Israel they are powerless to provide needed treatment to many wounded patients. Israeli military authorities should reverse their policy of denying medical exit permits for Palestinians who were wounded in the protests.
The Palestinian Authority should promptly issue required approvals for patients’ medical treatment.During the weekly protests, the Israeli military shot and killed protestors on the basis of a policy, according to public statements by Israeli officials and a submission to Israel’s supreme court, to use live ammunition against people who approached or attempted to cross or damage the fences. Israeli leaders rejected repeated calls from the UN and the EUand petitions by human rights groups to change those orders and praised the military’s actions.Israeli officials, including military commanders, apparently greenlighted the use of live ammunition against demonstrators. The officials include the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The vast majority of protesters were unarmed. Some threw rocks and “Molotov cocktails” (improvised gasoline bombs), used slingshots to hurl projectiles, launched kites with incendiary materials, and sought to damage the fences between Gaza and Israel. In one instance, four armed men fired at Israeli soldiers during a protest in northern Gaza on May 14, a witness said.The UN reported that four Israeli soldiers have been wounded during the Gaza protests from March 30 to June 7, the first of whom was a soldier who was lightly wounded on May 14. An Israeli military spokesperson told the Guardian that no one had crossed the fences on May 14. “Our troops have not taken any sustained direct fire,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.International human rights law standards on the use of force, which apply to law enforcement situations such as the Gaza protests, permit the use of live ammunition only as a last resort to prevent the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Israeli officials explicitly rejected human rights standards and argued that live ammunition was necessary to stop protesters from breaching the fences, because Hamas organized the protests so armed fighters could exploit the breaches to kill or capture soldiers or civilians.
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, and in fact Israeli forces also shot medics, journalists, children, and others who were hundreds of meters away from the fences, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, because Palestinians in Gaza are entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions as an occupied people, any wilful killing of them would constitute a war crime.A senior Israeli military official told the Washington Post that the only weapons Israeli forces used were live ammunition and tear-gas, not water cannon or other measures that Israel uses in the West Bank, which the official said lacked adequate range.In addition to the barbed wire fence separating Gaza and Israel, the two-meter-high fencing with electronic sensors, ditches, and military watchtowers along the Gaza periphery, in 2015 the Israeli military built fences around 12 Israeli communities near Gaza with electronic sensors that detect any contact with the fence and automatically alert the military. This further undercuts the claim that the protesters posed an imminent treat.Photographs, videos, and statements by surgeons indicate that Israeli forces fired on protestors using military assault rifles that fire bullets at high velocity. Medical journal articles, including by Israel Defense Forces trauma surgeons, have documented that gunshot wounds from assault-rifle bullets cause severe soft tissue damage, have a high incidence of complications, and that “any delay at the scene of injury might jeopardize limb survival.”The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is examining alleged serious crimes committed in Palestine since June 13, 2014, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. On May 22, Palestine submitted a “referral” requesting the prosecutor investigate crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction, including crimes against humanity and the war crimes of willfully killing or willfully “causing great suffering, or serious injury” to civilians and the residents of an occupied territory.
Crimes against humanity are criminal acts committed on a widespread or systematic basis as part of an “attack on a civilian population,” involving a plan or policy to commit the crime. Such acts include murder, persecution on political grounds, and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health,” according to the Rome Statute.Given strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Palestine since 2014, including new population transfers into occupied territories, Human Rights Watch has called on Bensouda to open a formal probe consistent with the ICC’s Rome Statute.“Impunity for unlawfully killing and maiming people in Gaza risks continuing the cycle where still more lives and families will be torn apart in the future,” Whitson said. “The UN Human Rights Council inquiry should identify and call for sanctions against officials implicated in ongoing serious human rights violations.”The Gaza Protests and Israel’s Use of Live AmmunitionPalestinians have held weekly protests beginning on March 30 near the fences along the eastern perimeter of the Gaza Strip. The protests were against Israel’s 11-year closure of the Gaza Strip and to commemorate the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s establishment, which Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”Dr. Ayman al-Sahabani, the head of the emergency department at al-Shifa Medical Complex in Gaza City, told Human Rights Watch that on May 14 alone the hospital received about 500 patients, most with bullet wounds to the legs, and 18 people who were dead on arrival. The emergency department’s capacity is 20 beds.Many of the injuries are life-changing, according to medical personnel.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stated on April 19 that their clinics in Gaza had treated more than 250 people “where the bullet has literally destroyed tissue after having pulverized the bone,” many of whom would require additional surgery. From March 30 to May 23, 40 people shot by Israeli forces, including at least three children, needed a limb amputated, 10 of whom lost a leg above the knee, according to information reported by the Gaza Health Ministry and other medical sources to the World Health Organization.Prior to the first mass weekly demonstration in Gaza on March 30, the Israeli government security cabinet – which consists of the prime minister, defense minister, and other senior officials – held two meetings to discuss the army’s planned response. The Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, briefed the security cabinet and later toldIsraeli media that “a big portion of the army” as well as more than 100 snipers would be present and that “the orders are to use a lot of force.” On March 29, Netanyahu’s Arabic spokesman 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.”On March 30, the Israeli military, using live ammunition, killed 17 Palestinians, 12 of them demonstrators, and wounded hundreds. The next day, the chairperson of Meretz, a left-leaning Israeli political party, the EU, and the UN secretary-general separately called for an independent investigation into the events. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman rejectedthose calls and said that “the IDF soldiers” at the Gaza fences “have my full backing.” Netanyahu thanked “our soldiers who are protecting the country’s borders.”Protesters announced further demonstrations for the following Friday, April 6. Ahead of those protests, an Israeli military spokesperson stated that people “could potentially be shot” if they approached the fences or tried to damage them, and Lieberman stated that “anyone who comes close to the fence endangers his life.” During the April 6 protests, the Israeli military killed nine Palestinians in Gaza and injured hundreds more, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, which had called on soldiers to disobey unlawful orders to fire on protesters who posed no threat to life. At a cabinet meeting on April 11, Netanyahu chastised critics of the military’s actions and said “we will give [Israeli soldiers] all the backing they need to do their holy work.”International Law and Israeli ClaimsThe use of force outside of active armed conflict is governed by international human rights standards set out in the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These standards, which apply to the Gaza demonstrations, prohibit shooting live ammunition except to prevent “the imminent threat of death or serious injury” or “the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life,” and “only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.”The military did not publish its rules of engagement, but Israel’s state attorney disclosed some information in an April 29 response to a petition by Israeli human rights groups against the military’s use of lethal force against demonstrators in Gaza.
The government response rejected applying human rights law applicable in law enforcement to the demonstrations, and claimed that only international humanitarian law, applicable in fighting in armed conflicts, applies, because the protests were “organized, coordinated and directed by Hamas, a terrorist organization engaged in armed conflict with Israel.” But even where the laws of armed conflict on targeting do apply, in any case where there is doubt as to a person’s civilian status, they must be presumed to be a civilian and may not be targeted.Israeli officials argued that Hamas directed protesters to cross the fences so that armed fighters could run through the breach to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians or soldiers. The Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said on May 15 that there was “no dilemma” in deciding between “having a lower amount of Palestinian casualties,” and using lethal force in order to “defend Israeli communities immediately behind the [Gaza perimeter fences].” The government’s April 29 court response elaborated that soldiers could use “potentially lethal force” to prevent protesters from breaching the fences and crossing from Gaza to Israel if “the evaluation is that the force is necessary at that time to remove the danger before it is realized, even if the danger itself has not yet become imminent,” and that shooting demonstrators before they reach the fences is justified because if crowds breached them, it would “operationally require live fire on a massive scale.”In its efforts to justify the use of live ammunition to prevent Palestinians from crossing the fences, the government claimed in court to be following an open-fire policy that does not appear to account for the amounts of live ammunition used. The government stated to Israel’s supreme court that the orders only permit “accurate shooting towards the legs of a ‘major agitator or instigator’,” after giving verbal warnings and using non-lethal means to disperse demonstrations, “as a last resort only and subject to stringent requirements” of proportionality.
The government stated that the orders do not permit live fire against a person because he is near the fences, took part in demonstrations, or supports Hamas.In fact, Israeli forces appear to have routinely exceeded these restrictions, firing from behind sand mounds and the fences separating Gaza and Israel at demonstrators in many cases more than 200 meters away.Netanyahu referred to a May 15 statement by a Hamas leader, Salah al-Bardawil, that 50 of 62 people killed by Israeli forces on May 14 were Hamas members – “in other words, members of a terrorist organization,” Netanyahu said. Israeli military and political officials also claimed that Hamas “strategically placed [civilians] in harm’s way” because graphic media coverage of their injuries would harm Israel’s image. Hamas’s 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 protestors who posed no threat to life.On May 25 Israel’s supreme court rejected petitions by human rights groups against the military’s live-fire orders without applying the clear standard on the use of lethal force set out in international human rights law, and substantially deferring to the government’s discretion.
The court’s unwillingness to apply international law and to challenge a policy that authorizes lethal force even when there is no imminent threat to life highlights the importance of the International Criminal Court prosecutor opening a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.Palestinians in Gaza are protected persons under the Geneva Conventions. Willful killings of protected persons by the occupying power outside what is permissible under human rights standards would constitute a grave breach of the laws of occupation. The prohibition of war crimes and crimes against humanity can be the basis for individual criminal liability in international courts, as well as in domestic courts in many countries under the principle of universal jurisdiction.Accounts from WitnessesIn total, from March 30 to June 2, the Gaza Ministry of Health reported that hospitals in Gaza received 530 Palestinians who were wounded in the head or neck, and 311 in the chest or back.
News media reported that a 14-year-old girl who had tried to breach the fences with wire-cutters was fatally shot in the head.The protesters were separated from the soldiers by the two fences and electronic sensors. Protesters had reached and torn down some of the barbed wire fence on April 27, and witnesses at the May 14 protests said that some protesters had cut or damaged sections of the barbed wire fence east of Gaza City, but that none had reached the electric fence beyond it.One witness said he was aware of a person who had joined the May 14 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. Another man said that four members of an armed group had attempted to attack Israeli forces east of Jabalya, by concealing guns until they reached the first fence, where they fired at Israeli forces positioned behind sand mounds about 80 meters away, before being shot fatally. Israeli forces killed at least 17 people in that area on May 14. Israeli concerns that members of armed groups would use the protests as cover to fire at Israeli soldiers or plant explosives near the fences do not justify the repeated use of live ammunition, including with apparent lethal intent, against protesters who posed no imminent lethal threat, Human Rights Watch said.Witnesses consistently described the positioning of Israeli soldiers across the fences that separate Israel and Gaza, atop large earthen mounds overlooking the area where protesters congregated. The mounds were 10 to 30 meters apart, with 5 to 10 soldiers on each one. The Palestinian rights group Al Mezan reported that Israeli forces entered Gaza at 3 a.m. on May 14 and leveled the land in front of the fences in multiple areas, apparently to eliminate protestors’ cover.A freelance photojournalist, Mahmoud Abu Salama, 33, was covering demonstrations in an area east of Jabalya called Abu Safiyya, in the northern Gaza Strip, about 200 meters from the fences, where he saw a man shot in the groin at around noon on May 14, and a boy shot in the leg at about 3:30 p.m. Human Rights Watch has a photo he took of the boy. Abu Salama said:I still hear the voices of people who were screaming after being shot. One man was launching stones with a slingshot, he was just a meter-and-a-half from me when he was shot in the groin. He was bleeding so badly that the paramedics didn’t know how to deal with him, his face color went between yellow and blue. The boy was also close to me when he was shot in his leg. I saw him while he was escaping from the teargas and running away with his back to the fence when they shot him.Mohammad Meqdad, 39, a civil defense worker, spoke to Human Rights Watch while awaiting surgery at al-Shifa hospital on May 15. Wearing an orange, reflective vest, like other civil defense workers, he had been evacuating wounded people east of Gaza City to ambulances throughout the morning on May 14, he said. At around 1:30 p.m., he was walking back toward the fences after evacuating a casualty, and was about 300 meters away when he was shot in the leg:My face was toward the fence. I was able to see soldiers on hills of sand and those hills were higher [on May 14] than they were on previous protest days. On each of the hills, there were about 10 soldiers. There were guys closer to the fence who were burning tires, chanting for Jerusalem, and throwing stones, but others were shot who were much farther away.
The last people I evacuated before I was shot were three women, all in their late 20s, who were shot in the neck or in the head. They had been carrying flags and chanting, they were in a group of women that was about 150 meters from the fence, behind a group of men who were closer than they were to the fence. I evacuated one, and then another got shot, and then the other, over 5 or 10 minutes. One of them died immediately, but I don’t know what happened to the other two.Mohaweya al-Ay, a 20-year-old student from the Tuffah neighborhood of Gaza City, spoke to Human Rights Watch on May 17, after surgery at al-Shifa hospital. He said that he had been helping three civil defense workers evacuate wounded protesters east of Gaza City at 1 p.m. on May 14 when Israeli forces fatally shot one of the civil defense workers, Mousa Abu Hassanein, in the chest. They were about 200 meters from the fences at the time, al-Ay said.