United Nations investigators have accused Israeli soldiers of intentionally firing on civilians and said they might have committed war crimes in their lethal response to Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza.
The independent Commission of Inquiry, set up last year by the UN’s human rights council, said Israeli forces killed 189 people and shot more than 6,100 others with live ammunition near the fence that divides the two territories.
In a statement, the panel said it 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”.
Thirty-five of those killed were children, and three were clearly identifiable paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the report said.
Israel dismissed the report as “hostile, mendacious and slanted”.
The panel acknowledged “acts of significant violence” from the demonstrators, who have thrown rocks, molotov cocktails and in several cases explosives at the fence and Israeli troops behind it. However, it made clear that those actions did not amount to combat or military campaigns, rejecting an Israeli claim of “terror activities” by Palestinian armed groups.
“The demonstrations were civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims,” it said.
Investigators added 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.”
It said: “These serious human rights and humanitarian law violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.”
Weekly protests have been held at the frontier between Israel and the Gaza Strip since March last year, calling for the easing of an Israeli blockade on people and goods. Rallies have also demanded recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and elsewhere to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.
Israel’s army has said its forces opened fire to protect against attacks and incursions. Four of its troops have been injured during the protests, and one soldier was killed by a bullet fired from Gaza.
The UN inquiry found fault with the protest organisers, which includes Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, for allowing the use of kites and balloons carrying cans of flaming petrol that have floated into Israel and torched fields. These have been launched during rallies.
Those acts caused fear among civilians and significant damage to property in southern Israel, the panel said.
While the demonstrations continue, the inquiry investigated possible violations only from the start of the protests on 30 March to the end of 2018. It conducted 325 interviews with victims and witnesses, it said, and analysed social media and audio-visual material, including drone footage.
Israeli authorities did not respond to repeated requests for information and access, the panel said.
Yisrael Katz, acting foreign minister, said on Thursday that the investigation was “another hostile, mendacious and slanted report against the State of Israel”.
He added: “No one can deny Israel the right of self-defence and the obligation to defend its citizens and borders from violent attacks.”
A fuller report will be presented to the human rights council on 18 March in Geneva.