Israel’s use of lethal force against Palestinian protesters along the Gaza Strip border in recent weeks could amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
The rights group accused Israel of repeatedly using live ammunition “with apparent lethal intent” against Palestinian demonstrators who posed no imminent threat to life.
“Israel’s use of lethal force when there was no imminent threat to life has taken a heavy toll in life and limb,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“The international community needs to rip up the old playbook, where Israel conducts investigations that mainly whitewash the conduct of its troops and the US blocks international accountability with its Security Council veto, and instead impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”
Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave have been staging protests demanding their right to return to the homes and lands their families were expelled from 70 years ago.
Since the protests, dubbed the Great March of Return, began on March 30, Israeli forces have killed 124 Palestinians and wounded more than 3,800 others.
At least 40 Palestinians have had to have their limbs amputated as a result of Israel’s actions along the Gaza border, according to the rights group.
Israeli authorities allege that its soldiers were acting in self-defence and had adhered to the rules of engagement to deter protesters from breaching the fence.
In a controversial ruling earlier in May, Israel’s top court deemed the military’s rules of engagement – and the use of live ammunition – compatible with domestic and international law, arguing that the protests fall into the category of a state of war.
The HRW report came ahead of an emergency UN General Assembly meeting on Wednesday to vote on a resolution condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force.”
Meanwhile, the United States voted against a Kuwait-drafted UN Security Council resolution on June 2 calling for the protection of Palestinian civilians.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley described the resolution as “grossly one-sided” as she pinned the blame on much of Palestinians’ suffering on the Hamas movement, which governs the strip.
The Palestinian government in turn submitted in May a referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague calling on prosecutors to investigate what it called Israel’s “widespread and systematic” crimes.
Israel, however, contends that the Palestinian move is “legally invalid”, seeing that Israel is not a member of the ICC and the court does not have jurisdiction over it.
Israel has been accused of committing war crimes in its three wars in the Gaza Strip over the past decade.