The UN human rights chief has slammed Israel’s deadly reaction to protests along the Gaza border as “wholly disproportionate” and backed calls for an international investigation.
Addressing a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was “little evidence” Israel made an effort to minimise casualties during mass border protests by Palestinians on Monday.
He said Israeli forces had killed 106 Palestinians, including 15 children, since March 30. More than 12,000 were injured, at least 3,500 by live ammunition.
Israel was an occupying power and under international law, it was obliged to protect the people of Gaza and ensure their welfare, he said.
But instead, Gaza residents “are, in essence, caged in a toxic slum from birth to death; deprived of dignity; dehumanised by the Israeli authorities to such a point it appears officials do not even consider that these men and women have a right, as well as every reason, to protest”, he said.
“Nobody has been made safer by the horrific events of the past week,” he added. “End the occupation, and the violence and insecurity will largely disappear.”
He pointed out that while at least 60 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured in a single day of protests on Monday, “on the Israeli side, one soldier was reportedly wounded, slightly, by a stone”.
Many of the Palestinians injured and killed “were completely unarmed” and “were shot in the back, in the chest, in the head and limbs with live ammunition,” he said.
Some demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, used sling-shots, flew burning kites into Israel, and attempted to use wire-cutters on border fences, but “these actions alone do not appear to constitute the imminent threat to life or deadly injury which could justify the use of lethal force,” Zeid added.
“The stark contrast in casualties on both sides is … suggestive of a wholly disproportionate response,” he told the council.
The killings resulting from “the unlawful use of force by an occupying power may also constitute a grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions, he added.
Such violations are commonly called “war crimes”, although Zeid did not explicitly use that word.
Right of return protests
The special session comes after six weeks of mass protests along the Gaza border with Palestinian refugees demanding the right to return to their homes inside what is now Israel.
The protests on Monday, organised by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, were part of Nakba or “Catastrophe”, the day Palestinians commemorate the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by Israeli forces.
Israel has defended the killing of protesters, saying it was acting in self-defence to protect its borders and communities. Both Israel and the United States said Hamas, which rules Gaza, instigated the violence, an allegation the group denies.
In Friday’s session in Geneva, the Human Rights Council will consider a resolution put forward by Pakistan and other Muslim countries that includes a call for the council to dispatch an “independent, international commission of inquiry” – UN’s highest-level of investigation.
The draft resolution said the investigators should look into “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law … in the context of the military assaults on large-scale civilian protests that began on 30 March, 2018”.
It said the aim should be to “establish the facts and circumstances” around “alleged violations and abuses including those that may amount to war crimes and to identify those responsible”.
Zeid said he supported the call for “an investigation that is international, independent and impartial, in the hope the truth regarding these matters will lead to justice”.
Israeli ambassador Aviva Raz Schechter said Friday’s session and the call for a commission of inquiry “are yet again politically motivated and won’t improve the situation on the ground by even one iota”.
China, France, Brazil, Sweden, and Switzerland were among the 51 countries who supported the special session.