JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces may have committed war crimes and should be held individually and collectively accountable for the deaths of 189 Palestinian protesters in Gaza last year, according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry criticized Israel’s rules of engagement and said the majority of the Palestinians killed “did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot.”
The report also noted that thousands of demonstrators have been maimed by Israeli snipers during the weekly protests along the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the report, saying it “set a new record for U.N. hypocrisy” and was “based purely on an obsessive hatred of Israel.”
Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister, Israel Katz, labeled the commission a “theater of the absurd” and said the report was “hostile, mendacious and biased against Israel.”
Israel has said the protests, which are ongoing and described by Gazans as the Great March of Return, are particularly violent and could act as a cover for Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks.
But the U.N. commission, which conducted about 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and officials from both sides about events in Gaza through Dec. 31, said only 29 of the dead could be clearly identified as members of Palestinian armed factions.
Criticizing the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, which have included using snipers to prevent protesters from reaching the border fence, the commission said “less lethal alternatives remained available and substantial defenses were in place, rendering the use of lethal force neither necessary nor proportionate, and therefore impermissible.”
The Israeli military has remained vague about its operating procedures in dealing with the protests, saying only that they are “classified in line with accepted military practice worldwide.”
The report estimated that as many as 23,000 Palestinians were injured by the Israeli military, including hundreds who lost limbs. It said Israeli snipers intentionally shot at journalists and health workers even though they were clearly marked as such.
“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,” said the commission’s chairman, Santiago Canton of Argentina.
Johan Eriksson, media adviser for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the commission also assembled a confidential dossier of complicit individuals that “will be made available for an appropriate legal body to use.”
Basem Naim, a member of Hamas’s Council on International Relations, said he welcomed the report.
“It indicates beyond any doubt that the Israeli occupation has committed clear war crimes against the Palestinians who came out to protest peacefully to demand the right of return and lift the siege,” he said.
The commission determined that the protests, which began March 31, arose out of a desire by Gaza residents to draw attention, in a nonviolent manner, to the dire humanitarian situation in the strip amid a strict land, sea and air blockade by Israel and Egypt that has been in place for more than a decade.
The protests were also intended to help win international recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, which sit within Israeli territory. Roughly 75 percent of Gazans are registered by the United Nations as refugees, descendants of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Many still live in one of Gaza’s eight refugee camps, the report said.
The Israeli military has said that the protests were hijacked early on by Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. Hamas, the army said, encouraged violence by protesters and called for a mass infiltration of Israeli towns and cities.
In its report, the United Nations also underscored the extensive damage to Israeli civilian property and the psychological distress caused by hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza during the demonstrations.
In his response to the commission on Thursday, Netanyahu said Israel would “not allow Hamas to harm Israeli sovereignty and its citizens.”
“Israeli soldiers will continue to firmly defend Israeli citizens against attacks by Hamas and Iranian-funded terrorist organizations that have declared their intention to destroy Israel,” he said.