Israel condemned over Gaza 'bloodbath' as Amnesty raises war crimes concerns

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Amnesty says Monday's killings may constitute war crimes as UN committee calls for 'immediate end to use of disproportionate force'

Palestinians protest near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabalia on 14 May 2018 (AFP)
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Tuesday 15 May 2018 8:45 UTC
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Editor’s note: Middle East Eye has live coverage of protests in Palestine and Israel here.

Israeli forces faced accusations of committing war crimes and using "disproportionate force" against Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza on Monday on the deadliest day in the enclave since “Great March of Return” protests began in March.

Amnesty International condemned the use of "excessive force" by Israeli forces on Monday and said in some instances they appeared to be "committing what appear to be willful killings constituting war crimes".

Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said "those responsible for outrageous human rights violations must be held to account," while Human Rights Watch described the killings as a "bloodbath".

In an earlier statement, the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it was “gravely concerned” that many of those killed or injured during weeks of protests were reportedly posing no imminent threat when they were shot.

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The statement, dated 8 May but published by the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, also called on Israel to “fully respect the norms of humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip”.

It called on Israel to "put an immediate end to the disproportionate use of force against Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip, refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties and ensure prompt and unimpeded access to medical treatment to injured Palestinians".

Dozens of people were killed and thousands injured on Monday as Israeli forces fired live ammunition at protesters commemorating the 70th anniversary this week of the Nakba and protesting against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

The Nakba, or Catastrophe, is the name given by Palestinians to the events of 1948 when hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch's executive director for the Middle East and North Africa, said Israeli authorities' policy of firing at protesters irrespective of whether there was an immediate threat to life had resulted in a "bloodbath that anyone could have foreseen".

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on Monday accused Israel of committing a "terrible massacre".

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the killing of protesters was a crime that would only produce more violence.

Egypt's foreign ministry said in a statement: "Egypt rejects the use of force against peaceful marches demanding legitimate and just rights, and warns of the negative consequences of this dangerous escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the US, condemned the Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, calling them a “massacre”.

In a statement, CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad, who is of Palestinian heritage, said:

“We condemn this massacre of civilian protesters - including children, medical personnel and the disabled - who seek to shake the conscience of an international community that has long ignored or excused Israel’s past dispossession of the Palestinian people and its continuing occupation of those few who were able to survive in their ancestral land.

“Perhaps this tragic mass killing - played out in full view of the world’s media - will spark a new call for justice similar to that sparked by the Soweto uprising against Apartheid.”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag also described Monday's killings as a "massacre" and said the US shared the blame with Israel.

"The US administration moving its embassy to Jerusalem destroyed the chances for peace and ignited a fire that will cause more human losses and injuries as well as destruction and catastrophe in the region," Bozdag said.

Turkey also recalled its ambassadors to Israel and the US, according to a TRT report.

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South Africa's foreign ministry said that it had withdrawn its ambassador from Israel until further notice because of the "indiscriminate and grave manner of the latest Israeli attack".

"Like other members of the international community, South Africa is disturbed by the latest deadly aggression and reiterates calls made by several member states of the United Nations for an independent inquiry into the killings, with a view to holding to account those who are responsible," it said in a statement.

The European Union's high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini called on Israel to "respect the right to peaceful protest and the principle of proportionality in the use of force".

Mogherini said Hamas and leaders of demonstrations in Gaza "must ensure that they remain strictly non-violent and must not exploit them for other means".

The White House on Monday blamed Hamas for deadly violence on Israel's border with Gaza where Israeli troops fatally shot at least 55 Palestinian protesters.

White House spokesman Raj Shah accused Hamas' leaders of making a "gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt" that led to the clashes in Gaza at the same time the United States was opening its new embassy in Jerusalem, a move that has fueled Palestinian anger.

"The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas," Shah said. "Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response."

Amnesty International said Israel's "use of excessive force in Gaza" was an "abhorrent violation of international law".

Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said: “This is another horrific example of the Israeli military using excessive force and live ammunition in a totally deplorable way. This is a violation of international standards, in some instances committing what appear to be wilful killings constituting war crimes."

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that firing live ammunition at protesters showed "appalling indifference to human life on the part of senior Israeli government and military officials" and called for an immediate halt to the killing of protesters.

The Israeli army said in a tweet on Monday that 35,000 Palestinians were taking part in "violent riots" and its troops were "operating according to standard operating procedures".

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the British government was "extremely saddened by the loss of life that has taken place" but suggested that the violence had been "provoked".

"We understand that there are some people who have been provoking that violence but on the other hand there has got to be restraint in the use of live fire," he said.

At least 40 people had been killed and thousands injured prior to Monday in recent protests at the Gaza border, the committee said, although Gaza's ministry of health put the death toll at 65.

MEE correspondents on the ground in Gaza on Monday reported that Israeli forces stationed behind the fence had been heavily firing live bullets at crowds since the morning, in addition to small drones dropping tear gas canisters right above the demonstrators.