Israel should conduct prompt, thorough, and independent criminal investigations into the killings of protesters by military forces on May 15, 2011, Human Rights Watch said. Fourteen people were killed during demonstrations in southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank during the annual Palestinian commemoration of “Nakba Day.” A fifteenth protester died of his wounds on May 16.
For Palestinians, the “Nakba” (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the destruction of Palestinian villages and expulsion of their residents that accompanied Israel’s declaration of independence.
“In a too-familiar pattern, Israeli troops responded to stone-throwing youths with live bullets, with predictably deadly consequences,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The evidence shows a disturbing disregard for protesters’ lives.”
Because Israeli investigations into alleged serious wrongdoing by its armed forces have a poor record for accountability, the United Nations should monitor any Israeli investigations into the 15 deaths to determine whether they comply with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.
Israeli forces killed 10 people demonstrating at the Lebanese-Israeli border near the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Rass, according to the Lebanese army and Lebanese press outlets that printed the names of those killed. Israeli soldiers killed another four when protesters crossed from Syria into the village of Majd al-Chams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to state-controlled Syrian media. Scores more were injured, according to these same sources and witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the overall number of casualties but spoke to witnesses who saw Israeli fire kill three protesters at the border fence in Lebanon and two protesters in the Golan Heights. Witnesses also reported to Human Rights Watch that live fire from Israeli military watchtowers along Gaza’s northern perimeter wounded numerous protesters inside Gaza, and that Israeli forces seriously injured a Gazan photojournalist covering the protest.
According to the Israeli army, demonstrators threw rocks and injured ten soldiers and three officers at the “northern border.” The army did not specify the locations or circumstances, and the Israeli military spokesman’s office did not provide Human Rights Watch with more information. Israeli officials have not claimed that any protesters were armed or fired on Israeli troops, or indicated whether they would open any criminal investigations.
Witness statements and Human Rights Watch’s observations while monitoring the demonstrations in Lebanon indicate that although demonstrators did throw stones, the risk to Israeli soldiers was limited because the demonstrators did not breach the multi-layered, electrified border fence that separated them from the soldiers. A row of trees on the Israeli side of the fence provided additional cover to the soldiers. The circumstances indicate that the soldiers could have avoided risks of injury by stones and prevented a border breach without resorting to lethal force.
Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain full information about demonstrations in the Golan Heights, where demonstrators breached the fence and entered a town in the occupied territory, but information from one witness who participated in the demonstrations raises concerns of excessive use of force.
The incidents in Gaza and the West Bank also require investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
In Gaza, no soldiers were on the ground or in range of stones thrown but Israeli forces shot dozens of protesters with live fire. In the West Bank, many protesters threw stones but peaceful demonstrators said they were also targeted with rubber bullets and gun-launched teargas canisters.
“Israel should not be allowed simply to shrug off the evidence that its soldiers reacted with unnecessary and disproportionate force that killed civilians,” Whitson said. “There needs to be a credible, criminal investigation, and where there is evidence that crimes took place, prosecutions and appropriate punishment.”