Thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals of teenagers Hasan Shalabi and Hamza Shteiwi in the Gaza Strip.
Evidence suggests Israel committed crimes against humanity in responding to 2018 protests in Gaza, as snipers targeted people clearly identifiable as children, health workers and journalists, according to a United Nations report.
Santiago Canton, the chair of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said in a statement on Thursday that “Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.”
The inquiry, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, investigated possible violations from the start of the protests on March 30, 2018, through to December 31.
“More than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers, week after week at the protest sites,” it said.
“The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such.”
The investigators specified that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli troops killed and injured Palestinians “who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat”.
The UN team also dismissed claims by Israel that the protests were aimed to conceal acts of terrorism.
“The demonstrations were civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims,” the statement said.
“Despite some acts of significant violence, the Commission found that the demonstrations did not constitute combat or military campaigns.”
The commission said it conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, while reviewing more than 8,000 documents.
Investigators looked at drone footage and other audiovisual material, the commission said.
It said it heard from 15 contributors from the Israeli side, including non-governmental organisations, but got no cooperation from the Israel government.
“The Israeli authorities did not respond to repeated requests by the Commission for information and access to Israel and to the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the report said.
In response to the findings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the council for “setting new records for hypocrisy and mendacity, out of an obsessive hatred of Israel”.
Israel says its army is defending the country’s border against violent infiltration attempts and accuses the Hamas movement, which runs Gaza, of using the large crowds as cover to carry out attacks.
“Israel will not allow Hamas to attack Israel’s sovereignty and its people, and will maintain the right of self-defence,” said Netanyahu.
The UN commission also faulted Hamas for not preventing use of incendiary kites – low-tech weapons with flaming tails designed to ignite fires – during the protests.
There was no immediate reaction from Hamas. The rival Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, welcomed the findings.
“The findings and demands to open an immediate investigation by Israel, the occupying power, is a step in the right direction, yet is not enough for establishing comprehensive accountability,” said Ahmad Shami, a spokesman for the Palestinian prime minister.
“The international community must take its responsibility and provide international protection for the Palestinian citizens in every inch of Occupied Palestine.”
The UN panel said its mandate was to identify those it believed responsible for the violations, and it planned to hand over a confidential file with such information to Michele Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, who could hand it over the International Criminal Court (ICC) and national authorities.