Israeli authorities should conduct a criminal investigation into Israeli forces’ shootings of protesters who tried to cross into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on June 5, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should examine whether regulations permit soldiers to open fire at protesters who pose no imminent threat to them, Human Rights Watch said.
It was the second time in three weeks that Israeli forces used apparently unnecessary lethal force against protesters who posed no imminent threat to soldiers’ or others’ lives, Human Rights Watch said. Israeli forces had killed 15 protesters in the Golan and in Lebanon during protests on May 15, when they were commemorating what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe of displacement that accompanied the founding of the Israeli state. The Israeli military should immediately issue public rules of engagement that prohibit using lethal force except where necessary to protect life, and require independent investigations into every killing of protestors by the military.
“Israel doesn’t want protesters entering the Golan Heights from Syria, but using lethal force against demonstrators who don’t pose an imminent threat to life is simply unlawful,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Any official who gave contrary orders ought to be investigated with an eye to bringing criminal charges.”
Because of the poor quality of past Israeli military investigations, the international community should monitor such accountability measures, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Disengagement Observer Forces tasked with monitoring the area where the incidents occurred should consider conducting an independent inquiry in line with its mandate.
On the morning of June 5, separate groups of protesters from Syria approached Israeli fences in two locations: near Quneitra, a Syrian town located in a demilitarized zone, and near the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to witnesses and news reports. According to a participant, the protesters included descendants of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who gathered on the anniversary of what Palestinians call the Naksa (or setback), Israel’s military victory over Jordan, Egypt, and Syria in June 1967.
There have been conflicting accounts of the number of casualties, and Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the number killed or injured. Syrian media reported that during the course of the day’s events, Israeli forces killed 20 protesters and injured 325, and the Associated Press (AP) reported that Syrian hospital officials confirmed the 20 fatalities. The Israeli military said forces had issued warnings by megaphones, fired warning shots and shot at protesters’ lower bodies, but did not comment on casualties from the shooting.
An Israeli military spokesperson, Lt.-Col. Avital Liebowitz, said that the Syrian figures were “exaggerated” and that “around ten” protesters “were killed by the fact that they used Molotov cocktails in the Quneitra area that hit some Syrian land mines.” The Israeli military has not claimed that casualties in the Majdal Shams incident were caused by landmines.
Human Rights Watch spoke to a protester from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, and to four witnesses from Majdal Shams. They said that there were no landmine explosions during protests and that Israeli forces began to shoot shortly after protesters entered the no-man’s land; they saw Israeli troops shoot at least a dozen protesters, including three who were shot dead and one man who was shot in the chest. Witnesses said that the soldiers, who were firing from behind a fence, shot many protesters who were trying to cross a ditch filled with barbed wire, around 100 or more meters away from the soldiers; in addition, two witnesses said that some Israeli troops crossed over to the Syrian side of the fence and shot at protesters from another location several hundred meters away. Witness statements, news reports, photographs, and videos of the scene near Majdal Shams indicated that the protesters, some of whom carried wire-cutting tools, were too far from the soldiers to pose an imminent risk to their lives. Israel has not claimed that any of the protesters carried firearms.
News reports and witnesses said that Israeli troops behind the second fence shouted through megaphones, in Arabic, that “anyone who gets close to the fence is endangering his life.” Israeli military officials and one witness said that soldiers initially fired warning shots. The witnesses from Majdal Shams said Israeli troops fired live ammunition at protesters sporadically throughout the day, from around noon until after dark, and began to fire teargas at around 5 p.m. or later. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any reports or claims that Israeli troops fired rubber bullets or other non- or less-lethal crowd control measures before using live fire.
The AP quoted a 29-year-old man who had been “shot in the waist” as saying, “We were trying to cut the barbed wire when the Israeli soldiers began shooting directly at us.” The AP reported that Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman, “confirmed that protesters made it through a first layer of the border fence … but got no closer than 160 meters away from the final fence.”
Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain first-hand information about events in Quneitra; a journalist from Israel who tried to reach the area said that the Israeli military had declared it a closed zone and turned away media.
“Witnesses say Israeli forces quickly resorted to live fire against protesters who entered the demilitarized area but didn’t use tear gas until hours later, and that the protesters never posed an imminent threat,” Whitson said. “The Israeli troops’ response to the protesters seems to be a perfect inversion of the legal requirement to use lethal force only as a last resort.”
Israeli political and military officials characterized the protests as a Syrian-orchestrated attempt to distract attention from Syria’s violent repression of anti-government demonstrations. A recent Human Rights Watch report concluded that the Syrian government’s widespread, lethal targeting of protesters may amount to crimes against humanity. A witness who participated in the protests near Majdal Shams told Human Rights Watch that on the following day, Syrian security forces shot and killed mourners at a funeral for one of the men killed by Israeli troops. Serious human rights violations by the Syrian government of course provide no justification for Israel’s unlawful use of lethal force.
Human Rights Watch also observed Palestinian protests on June 5 near the Qalandiya checkpoint on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem in the West Bank, where Israeli forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas. No serious injuries were reported. The Lebanese military reportedly banned demonstrations along the border with Israel after Israeli forces reportedly killed 10 protesters near the town of Maroun al-Rass on May 15.