A U.N. probe released Thursday said Israel may have committed crimes against humanity in responding to last year’s unrest in Gaza, as snipers “intentionally” shot civilians including children, journalists and the disabled.
Israel rejected the report “outright,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, called for Israel to be held accountable.
‘Intentionally Shot Children’
The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory investigated possible violations during demonstrations in the Gaza strip between March 30 and December 31 last year.
Commission chairman Santiago Canton said Israeli soldiers committed multiple breaches of international humanitarian law while suppressing protesters who were calling for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their former homes now inside Israel.
“Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity,” he said in a statement.
Commission member Sara Hossain told reporters in Geneva that Israeli snipers “intentionally shot children.”
“They have intentionally shot people with disabilities. They have intentionally shot journalists,” she added.
Health workers were also hit by snipers who shot more than 6,000 “unarmed demonstrators” during weeks of protest, according to the inquiry set up in May by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
One video, which went viral on social media, showed Israeli snipers laughing and cheering after shooting a motionless Palestinian man.
“I was standing with other people when I was hit in my leg, I was not throwing stones or anything,” the 28-year-old man, who survived the incident, told Reuters. “They shot me and later they laughed at me.”
Netanyahu claimed the rights council, a frequent target of criticism by the Jewish State, had hit “new records of hypocrisy and lies, out of obsessive hatred of Israel.”
Protests ‘Civilian in Nature’
Among the most contentious questions surrounding the protests was whether the demonstrators presented a threat to Israeli troops.
Netanyahu said on Twitter that “it is Hamas which fires rockets at Israeli civilians, bombs and carries out terrorist activities during the violent demonstrations on the fence.”
But investigators pointed to evidence that Israeli troops targeted Palestinians “who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat.”
The commission also dismissed claims the protests were aimed to conceal acts of terrorism, describing the demonstrations as “civilian in nature.”
“Despite some acts of significant violence, the commission found that the demonstrations did not constitute combat or military campaigns.”
The investigators did not have access to the Israeli military’s rules of engagement.
But, based on publicly available evidence, the commission said there is evidence that Israeli troops have been instructed that they can use lethal force against those who incite others to violence.
The so-called “main inciters” provision is at odds with international law and must be removed from Israel’s rules of engagement, Canton told reporters.
The commission said it conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, reviewed more than 8,000 documents and looked at drone footage among other material.
Israel did not cooperate with the probe or provide access to Gaza.
Senior Hamas official Bassem Naim told AFP that the panel’s findings had proven that Israel “committed clear war crimes” against peaceful protesters and demanded justice.
Canton told reporters the commission considered Hamas’s culpability for the bloodshed but stressed that since the demonstrations were generally peaceful in nature, Hamas was under no obligation to stop them.
“People have the right to demonstrate, they have the right to assembly,” he told reporters.
“So to put responsibility on (Hamas) for letting those demonstrations happen (is) against international humanitarian law,” he added.
The U.N. inquiry was in part tasked with identifying individuals who could be prosecuted for international crimes.
The commission declined to discuss specific suspects, but the report calls for the U.N. human rights office to manage the list of those with possible criminal responsibility and to share that information with relevant courts.
It also calls on states to “consider imposing individual sanctions, such as a travel ban or an assets freeze, on those identified as responsible by the commission.”
More on the Subject
Global indifference is fuelling atrocities across the Middle East, rights watchdog Amnesty International warned Tuesday in a report condemning what it called growing impunity.
“The crackdown on civil society actors and political opponents increased significantly in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia,” the rights watchdog said in its annual regional report.
And it condemned Israel’s crackdown on demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank, which it says has killed “at least 195 Palestinians, including 41 children.”