The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in Occupied Palestinian Territory stated that Israeli security forces are accountable for 189 deaths in the Gaza strip that occurred in 2018, among them 35 children. The report, published on 28th February, also put the number of injuries by live ammunition at over 6000 between 30th March and 31st December 2018, not including those wounded by shrapnel or affected by tear gas and rubber bullets. The commission investigated specific incidents surrounding the Gazan protests at the separation fence during 2018, through interviews, footage and medical records, and concluded that “the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against demonstrators was unlawful”.
Santiago Canton, chair of the Commission, said that the actions taken by Israeli security forces during the “Great March of Return” amounted to “violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” which may even constitute “war crimes”. Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian Occupied Territory, welcomed the findings of the report and its recommendations as an important step in the direction of justice and accountability in the conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the response from the Israeli government has been one of outrage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the commission of “a new record of hypocrisy”. Ministers have widely dismissed the reported as biased and even intimated that United Nations supports tyrants at the expense of democracy.
While the occupying security forces maintain that the protest present a threat to Israel and provide possible cover for the activities of Hamas, the commission states that “the demonstrations were civilian in nature, had clearly stated political aims and, despite some acts of significant violence, did not constitute combat or a military campaign.” Furthermore, only 29 of the 189 dead could be clearly linked to insurgent military activity.
The report did not, therefore, rule out the involvement of agitators on the Palestinian side. Nevertheless, it is clear from the inquiry into the protests of 2018 that Israeli paramilitary groups employed disproportionately violent action in responding to the largely peaceful demonstrations.
The period investigated by the commission has been called the “Great March of Return”, part of ongoing demonstrations at the separation fence between Gaza and Israel. As documented by the commission, the movement began early last year with the calls of poet and journalist Ahmed Abu Artema for Palestinians to regularly protest along the border, returning to “the lands that are ours”. Over the course of the year, demonstrations were held at sites 700-1000 meters from the border every Friday and on some weekdays.
The Great March of Return is not just about reclaiming occupied territory, but also about relieving the ongoing Israeli blockade against Gazan territories, which is crippling the health system and exacerbating the economic situation. The recommendations in the report included those calling for the blockade to be lifted and for the Israeli government to independently and impartially investigate all civilian deaths around the separation fence. Also among recommended was an end to the use of incendiary kites and balloons by Hamas and other Gazan groups.
The many Palestinian deaths of last year come as chapter of bloodshed in a long conflict whose victims have largely been civilian and it is unlikely that such a report will lead to meaningful change on the ground at the separation fence. This at least foregrounds the extent of the humanitarian crisis and the dire need for greater international pressure.