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Israel 'whitewashed' probe into army killings during Gaza march of return

Report says Israel deliberately failed to probe actions of its forces over two-year protests during which hundreds were killed
The report alleges Israeli officials pledged to probe the army's open-fire practices, but failed to question anyone involved in writing or implementing the policies (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
By Jack Dodson in Haifa

report released on Thursday accuses the Israeli military of improperly investigating its own policies and practices during the Great March of Return, when hundreds of people were killed as Palestinians in Gaza rallied along the fence separating the enclave from Israel every Friday for nearly two years. 

The protest campaign called for an end to the blockade on Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007, and for Palestinian refugees' right of return to the lands that their families fled or were forced out of during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Israeli response - sometimes with live fire - was lethal, leading to the deaths of more than 250 people and tens of thousands of wounds, according to the UN.

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The report, entitled “Unwilling and Unable: Israel’s Whitewashed Investigations of the Great March of Return Protests,” was compiled and released by the Palestine Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza and B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

It details how the military implemented an illegal policy of using live fire, mostly carried out by snipers, against unarmed protestors.

At the time, frontline doctors told Middle East Eye the snipers had intentionally maimed protesters, creating a generation of young people with disabilities and overwhelming the territory's already crippled medical system.

Researchers said Israeli officials had pledged to investigate the open-fire practices in response to international pressure, but failed to question anyone involved in writing or implementing the policies.

Raji Sourani, PCHR’s executive director, said during a news conference on Thursday that the researchers had been working on the report for more than a year, interviewing witnesses and gathering information on the impact of the open-fire policy.

“They shot [the] handicapped, they shot children, young, old, [in order] to kill or to paralyse and amputate any parts of the body,” he said. 

Others killed in the protests included medics and journalists.

Terrorist status

Instead of focusing on the implementation of the open-fire policies, according to the report, Israeli investigators focused on specific killings deemed “exceptional”.
This meant the military did not conduct factual reviews of killings if the target was deemed a “terrorist”, though the state has not explained how it determines that status.

The report says that even in cases investigated by the military there was little accountability. 

During the media briefing, B’Tselem research director Yael Stein pointed to the killing of 15-year-old Haitham Khalil Mohammed al-Jamal in June 2018. 

The Israeli military convicted the soldier who shot Jamal on a plea deal after he admitted to opening fire without approval from superiors. The soldier received a one-month sentence of military labour.

Stein said the case was “indicative” of how Israel “never actually intends to do anything”.

Cyclist's leg amputated

Alaa al-Dali is a cyclist who was 21 when he went to the Great Return March on 30 March, 2018 - the very first day of the protests. 

Dali, who told Middle East Eye that he attended the protest wearing his athletic uniform representing Palestine, was shot in the leg by an Israeli sniper. His leg then had to be amputated, destroying his ambition to compete in international competitions.

According to Stein, 150 people in Gaza had limbs amputated as a result of Isareli fire during the protests.

March of return
Thousands of Palestinians were shot in the legs participating in Great March of Return protests (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)

Dali said several human rights organisations have reached out to him to research his case, and a lawyer contacted him to say that the Israeli military was claiming he was shot by Hamas and not by Isareli snipers.

“It was really sad, depressing,” he said of losing his leg. “But I’ve thankfully recovered well. I received support from my family and friends, they encouraged me to get up and move. I started riding a bicycle with only one leg, and I began thinking how to create a team for Palestinian parapalegic cyclists and to seek international recognition for that team.”

Dali managed to create the team, the Birds of Gaza. They are now training for international championships.

'Clear lie'

During Thursday’s briefing, Sourani said that Israel's military tried to put a stop to the protests quickly after they began in March 2018.

“The first reaction by the Israeli army was very clear and flagrant,” Sourani explained, summarising the findings of the report. “[Israel] said, ‘We are not going to allow that.’... they deployed snipers all over the border of the Gaza Strip.”

The first reaction by the Israeli army was very clear and flagrant... they deployed snipers all over the border of the Gaza Strip

Raji Sourani, PCHR

B’Tselem spokesperson Dror Sadot told MEE the report was compiled by gathering on the ground research, asking the Israeli army for data on the shootings, and specific questions about its various military investigations, as well as cross-checking against previously published reports.

The report outlines how the Israeli military defended its practices during the protests in Israel’s High Court of Justice by arguing that Israeli lives were in danger - a claim Stein dismissed as a “clear lie.”

“The open-fire regulations permit use of live fire solely for countering violent riots that pose a clear and immediate danger to IDF (Israeli army) troops or to Israeli civilians,” the state told high court justices in 2018. 

Throughout the two years, one Israeli soldier was wounded and one was killed - both months after the protests began.

“Well-armoured security forces continued to use lethal fire against protestors on the other side of the fence who posed no real danger,” researchers write in the report.

'You have to actually investigate'

The document's title refers to a specific aim of B’Tselem and PCHR. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) steps in to investigate when states are “unwilling or unable” to do so themselves. The report makes that case against the Israeli government.

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The ICC formally opened an investigation into Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinians territories in March 2021, following six years of the court compiling evidence on potential war crimes in the region. 

A month later, Israeli officials announced they would not cooperate with the process. 

Sourani, who is a lawyer, said the investigation had survived several attempts by the administration of former US president Donald Trump and Israeli officials to derail the process, and he is hopeful that it will complete its mission.

“The only thing Israel did in response to the [Palestinian casualty] numbers and the international criticism was to say we’re opening an investigation,” Stein said during the news conference. 

“The thing is, it’s not enough to say you’re investigating, you have to actually investigate. And this is something Israel did not do.”

Asked during the briefing whether B’Tselem and PCHR had sent their findings to the Israeli military, Stein said the military would be aware of it through public record and had their own communication channels to reply.

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