UN: Israel may have committed war crimes during Gaza protests

Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas in Gaza on May 14, 2018,

(CNN)A UN-backed independent panel said Thursday it had "reasonable grounds" to believe Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes and shot at journalists, health workers and children during protests in Gaza in 2018.

Israel has "utterly rejected" the report, saying its outcome had been determined before the investigation began.
In its report, published Thursday, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry into the protests -- known to Palestinians as the "Great March of Return" -- said it conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and sources, gathered more than 8,000 documents, and analyzed social media and drone footage.
    Palestinian paramedics evacuate an injured protester on April 13, 2018.
    "The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel," Santiago Canton, the Chair of the Commission, said.
    The panel said it "found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognizable as such."
    Israel refused to take part in the inquiry and the country's acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz rejected the UN report as "theater of the absurd." He called the UN report "hostile, false and incorrect."
    "Israel totally rejects the report. There is no factor that can deny Israel its right to self-defense and the obligation to defend its citizens and borders from violent attacks. Whoever pushes the residents of Gaza to the fences, including women and children, is the Hamas organization, whose declared objective is to destroy the State of Israel, and they are the ones who should carry the responsibility," Katz said in a statement on Thursday.
    The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister's spokesman Ahmad al-Shami said the report's findings were "a right step in the right direction."
    "The findings and demands to open an immediate investigation by Israel, the Occupying Power, is a right step in the right direction, yet it is not enough for establishing comprehensive accountability," said Shami. "The international community must take its responsibility and provide international protection for the Palestinian citizens in every inch of Occupied Palestine."
    Palestinians clash with Israeli forces near the frontier between Gaza and Israel on May 14.
    Hamas also welcomed the report; in a statement, senior Hamas official Basem Naim echoed calls for the international community to hold Israel accountable.
    The Commission was established by a UN Human Rights Council resolution in May 2018 to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international law during last year's protests in Gaza. It says it investigated "every killing" at the designated demonstration sites by the Gaza separation fence on official protest days, covering the period from the start of the protests in March until December 31.
    The report goes on to say that "189 Palestinians were killed during the demonstrations inside this period. The Commission found that Israeli Security Forces killed 183 of these protesters with live ammunition. Thirty-five of these fatalities were children, while three were clearly marked paramedics, and two were clearly marked journalists."
    The UN-backed panel also found that the Palestinian demonstrations were civilian in nature despite "some acts of significant violence," and did not constitute combat or military campaigns. It blamed Hamas for "encouraging" and "defending demonstrators' use of indiscriminate incendiary kites and balloons" that the Commission said caused fear among civilians and "significant damage to property in southern Israel."
    "The Commission concluded that Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, failed to prevent these acts," the report says.
      In a statement, Israeli human rights group Yesh Din said the report showed that the Israeli army must "change the open-fire regulations and forbid any use of lethal force in situations where there is no immediate danger to life."
      The group added: "The severe result of hundreds of dead and thousands injured in the demonstrations could have been avoided had Israel acted under international law rather than against it."