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UN-sponsored findings harshly criticize Israel's response to Palestinian protests

Palestinians protest during the funeral of volunteer paramedic,

Palestinians protest during the funeral of volunteer paramedic, Razan Najjar, 21, in Khan Younis, on June 2, 2018. Najjar was shot by Israeli fire on June 1, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Credit: AP/Khalil Hamra

A United Nations-sponsored report on the violent clashes last year between Israel Defense Forces and Palestinians of Gaza sharply criticizes the Israeli response to the protests, saying soldiers may have committed war crimes by shooting the mostly civilian protesters.

In all, some 189 Palestinians were killed in spasmodic outbreaks of violence between March 30 and Dec. 31, 2018, according to a report released Thursday by an independent international commission of inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which prepared the survey for the UN Human Rights Council. It said 6,103 people were hurt by shootings, including by sniper fire, and 23,300 in all were hurt.

The dead included 35 children — 60 percent of whom were shot in the head, said authors of the report, which added that the dead and injured also included health workers, including some shot while tending to patients, and journalists wearing vests clearly labeled “press.”

Four Israeli soldiers were hurt during the protests, the commission said. Commission members also acknowledged the "extensive damage" done to the homes of Israelis whose property and land was set on fire by "hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons" launched from Gaza during the demonstrations.

“The Israeli security forces killed and maimed Palestinian demonstrators who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities,” said the report. “Less lethal alternatives remained available and substantial defences were in place, rendering the use of lethal force neither necessary nor proportionate, and therefore impermissible.”

It added: “The commission therefore found reasonable grounds to believe that demonstrators were shot in violation of their right to life or of the principle of distinction under international humanitarian law.”

Israeli officials dismissed the 22-page report, saying the UN Human Rights Council is biased against Israel. Last July, the United States withdrew from the Council, then-ambassador Nikki Haley stating it routinely passed "anti-Israel" resolutions and was made up of countries with gross human rights records.

The commission was composed of Santiago Canton of Argentina, who served as chair; Sara Hossain of Bangladesh; and Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya. They conducted 325 interviews and meetings with victims, witnesses, government officials and members of civil society, and gathered more than 8,000 documents, the report said.

“The commission has found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli security forces committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” Canton said during a news conference in Geneva where the commission released video footage of Palestinians being shot at the protests. “These violations clearly warrant criminal investigation and prosecution and we call on Israel to conduct meaningful investigations into these serious violations and to provide justice and timely reparations for those killed and injured.”

The panel was tasked with investigating “all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory … in the context of the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests that began on 30 March 2018,” the report said.

But commission members said Israel did not cooperate with the inquiry or provide access to the sites of the killings.

And while the report covers the nine months, it focuses on casualties resulting from clashes on March 30, May 14 and Oct. 12, the bloodiest days of the extended conflict that Palestinians and their advocates said was supposed to be a peaceful protest against Israel’s treatment of civilians in the territory, which is governed by Hamas, a militant group.

The advocates have also said that the weekly demonstrations that began in late March, titled the Great March of Return, were designed to mark 70 years since an estimated 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from lands they held when Israel was founded in May 1948.

But Israelis have said the protests were merely pretexts for Hamas members to break through the fence that separates Gaza from Israel and attack Israeli citizens, and that Hamas leaders jeopardized the lives of civilians by infiltrating the protesting crowds and drawing gunfire from Israeli soldiers who were protecting the border.

"The countries of the world should consider their membership in the Human Rights Council, which supports a murderous terrorist organization,” said Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “This council is blinded by hatred of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, and wastes its resources and time in political attacks and spreading lies. The report ignores the only truth: that IDF soldiers acted morally to protect Israeli citizens while Hamas sent children to the fence and used them as human shields."

The report, however, said 29 protesters who were killed were members of Hamas.

Violence that broke out in mid-May coincided with President Donald Trump’s installation of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a maneuver that was criticized by many members of the international community as provocative since both Palestinians and Israelis claim it as their capital and because the fate of Jerusalem is a so-called Final Status issue to be decided during negotiations for a two-state solution.

The report said that Israel Defense Forces announced in an English-language video the day before protests scheduled for May 14 that “the Hamas terrorist organization plans to send armed terrorists among 250,000 violent rioters to swarm and breach Israel’s border with Gaza and enter Israeli communities” and that Hamas “plans to carry out a massacre in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces will not let them.”

Up to 60 demonstrators were killed on May 14, the report said, calling it the highest single-day death toll of the conflict.

"The UN Human Rights Council, dominated by dictators and rights abusers, has issued yet another absurd report whitewashing Hamas terrorism while condemning Israel for protecting its citizens," said Anne Herzberg, legal adviser and UN liaison for NGO Monitor, which describes itself an independent and nonpartisan research institute. "None of this is surprising given the UN relied overwhelmingly on information provided by Hamas and terror-linked NGOs, and uncritically adopted their false claims. The commission itself had no military or legal expertise, and was completely unqualified to author this report."

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