Israel opens criminal probe into 11 Palestinian deaths in Gaza border protests
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Israel opens criminal probe into 11 Palestinian deaths in Gaza border protests

Officials head to Geneva to rebut allegations by UN Human Rights Council that IDF soldiers committed war crimes

File: IDF soldiers monitor the Gaza security fence during violent protests along the border on May 14, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
File: IDF soldiers monitor the Gaza security fence during violent protests along the border on May 14, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

A senior Israeli official said the army has opened criminal investigations into the deaths of 11 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire during protests along the Israel-Gaza border over the past year.

Israeli officials briefed journalists in Geneva on Wednesday to rebut allegations made in a UN Human Rights Council report last week that claims soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces unjustifiably fired on civilians and may have committed crimes against humanity in responding to violent protests along the Gaza border.

The Israeli official said full-fledged criminal investigations in such cases are opened if “reasonable grounds” of suspicion of criminal misconduct are found. Critics say such investigations rarely result in prosecution of soldiers.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The statement came as Israeli officials on Wednesday delivered a detailed critique of the UN probe that accused IDF soldiers of possible war crimes in Gaza, saying investigators ignored key evidence, notably over the role of Hamas.

The Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the UN Human Rights Council (CC BY-SA Henry Mühlpfordt/Wikpedia)

Last month, the UN’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory said Israeli troops intentionally shot children, journalists, health workers and other civilians while responding to the protests at the Israel-Gaza border between March 30 and December 31 last year.

Israel immediately denounced the report as biased and rejected its findings.

But a senior Israeli delegation that traveled to Geneva days before the probe is set to be adopted by the UN Human Rights Council offered more criticism on Wednesday.

In a briefing with journalists, the delegation accused UN investigators of downplaying both the violence in the protests and the fact that Israel says the unrest, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” was orchestrated by Hamas, which provided logistical and financial support. The Islamist group that controls Gaza is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union and others.

Masked Hamas gunmen attend the funeral of Mahmoud al-Nabaheen, 24, in the Bureij refugee camp, in the central Gaza Strip, on January 23, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The UN commission claimed the protests were not instigated by Hamas and were generally peaceful in nature, arguing that Hamas was therefore under no obligation to intervene.

“For the commission, Hamas is completely absent from this report. They see no Hamas, they hear no Hamas,” said one Israeli official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The Israeli delegation provided evidence that it said proved Hamas’s involvement throughout the protests, including in coordinating serious acts of violence targeting Israeli troops, including shootings and explosive attacks.

“Hamas has complete control of these events,” the official said.

The commission also provided a list of victims it described as civilians, including Naji Abu Hojayeer, identified as a 24-year-old mechanic shot in the abdomen by Israeli troops.

The Israeli delegation said that after checking the commission’s list it easily established that some of the victims, including Hojayeer, were Hamas fighters.

Palestinians climb the border fence with Israel during clashes near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 8, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“We thought that the report was definitely unprofessional,” the Israeli official said, adding that the UN team lacked military knowledge and did not “understand international humanitarian law.”

Intent

Among the most strident accusations by the UN team was that Israeli forces deliberately shot and killed people that were clearly identifiable as children, journalists, health workers or disabled.

The Israeli official denounced that finding, insisting that troops were only allowed to use live rounds against those who posed “a real and imminent threat.”

Civilians who were amid the unrest may have gotten hit if a sniper missed or by a bullet that passed through its target, the official said.

But, the official added, Israel probes every fatal act involving its forces.

It was then that the official noted Israel has opened 11 criminal investigations connected to the Gaza unrest.

“We have been trying to deal with these events in the best non-lethal way possible,” the official said.

Since last March, the Gaza border has seen large-scale weekly clashes on Fridays, smaller protests along the northern Gaza border on Tuesdays, as well as periodic flare-ups between the Israeli military and Palestinian terror organizations. Protesters have been gathering along the frontier in often-violent protests calling for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to be allowed to return to former homes now inside Israel.

Israel accuses the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers Hamas — who openly seek Israel’s destruction — of instigating the protests.

At least 255 Palestinians — including many members of terror groups — have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since March 30, the majority during border protests, but also by tank fire and airstrikes.

Two Israeli soldiers have been killed during the same period, including one during a secretive operation within the Strip.

Israel says its actions are necessary to defend the border and stop mass incursions into its territory.

It accuses the Hamas terror group, with which it has fought three wars since 2008, of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.

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