Human Rights Council 42nd Session
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
9 September 2019
I present this oral update as requested by the Council in operative paragraph 11 of Resolution 40/13, which focuses on violations of international law in the context of large-scale civilian protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip.
My update covers the period since Resolution 40/13 was adopted, on 22 March 2019. I recall that the Council's Commission of Inquiry into violations of international law in the context of large-scale civilian protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem presented its report to this Council on 18 March 2019 (A/HRC/40/74).
Serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law have continued in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in this period, including in the context of large-scale civilian protests in Gaza.
The Demonstrations, known as the Great March of Return, have been held along the Israel-Gaza perimeter fence since 30 March 2018, against a backdrop of a drastically deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. These demonstrations have continued to take place almost every Friday. They have remained largely peaceful, although on numerous occasions a number of demonstrators have damaged and breached the fence, and have thrown petrol bombs, sound grenades and improvised explosive devices towards Israeli Security Forces, injuring two Israeli soldiers.
Between March and August, 180 burning kites and incendiary balloons were launched by demonstrators, causing significant damage to agricultural land and forests inside Israel.
Israeli Security Forces have used tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, water cannon and sound devices, as well as regularly firing live ammunition, against the demonstrators. As a direct result, since 22 March 2019, 13 Palestinians, including five children, have been killed. Just last Friday, two more boys, aged 14 and 17, were killed by ISF live ammunition while demonstrating near the fence. Initial monitoring suggests they were killed in circumstances where there was no threat to life or serious injury, and thus the use of lethal force may have been excessive.
Hundreds of others, including health workers and journalists, have been injured. Many have been left with permanent disabilities, including 20 who have undergone amputations, two who have been paralysed, and six who have permanently lost their vision in one eye.
These 13 deaths since 22 March follow the killings of 189 Palestinians in the previous 12 months – including 38 children. Since 22 March 2019 a further 859 Palestinians have been injured by live ammunition. Despite representing a significant decrease from the more than 6,800 demonstrators injured by Israeli forces with live ammunition, according to WHO, in the first year of the protests, it is a shockingly high number. The 263 children injured by live ammunition are a matter of deep concern.
I am also worried about the continued attacks on medical workers by Israel security forces. Since 22 March over 45 first responders have been injured at the fence. Some were shot at with live ammunition while trying to rescue injured demonstrators, despite being clearly visible in paramedic uniforms. During the same period, 30 journalists covering the protests were injured by Israeli society forces.
Gaza’s already over-burdened health system has been stretched beyond capacity in attempting to deal with so many traumatic injuries, in particular those caused by live ammunition. The situation has been compounded by Israel’s ongoing restrictions on the movement of essential medical equipment and supplies into Gaza. As a result, doctors have sought to refer dozens of injured protesters for treatment outside Gaza. Between 22 March and 31 July, 69 applications for medical permits for injured demonstrators were submitted to the Israeli authorities. Only 12 were approved.
Since March 2019 a steady decrease in the number of people taking part in the demonstrations has been observed. On most Fridays, the number of protesters has averaged between six and eight thousand people. In 2018, between 10,000 and 15,000 people regularly participated in demonstrations at the fence.
It should also be noted that other incidents have occurred outside the context of the large-scale civilian protests, resulting in both Israelis and Palestinians being killed and injured.
In the vast majority of cases monitored by my Office, no indication was found that the demonstrators – including children who were killed or seriously injured by live fire – represented an imminent threat of death or risk of serious injury to the Israeli soldiers, or anyone else.
Under international law, the use of lethal force in law enforcement operations must be limited to situations in which it is strictly necessary and in accordance with the principle of proportionality. The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials could not be more clear: lethal force should be used only in situations of last resort, specifically as a response to an imminent threat of death or serious injury. Use of force that does not comply with those principles, and which results in death, amounts to arbitrary deprivation of life. Under international humanitarian law, this may constitute an act of wilful killing.
The Israeli Security Forces’ rules of engagement remain mostly confidential. Media reports in July suggested that the open-fire regulations in force along the fence were amended to ensure that soldiers would primarily shoot at protesters’ ankles. The persistence of live ammunition injuries to the torso and head, including fatalities, does not appear to support this reported change.
As the Secretary-General and the Commission of Inquiry have emphasised, Israel has an obligation under international law to conduct appropriate investigations into the deaths and injuries which have occurred during the demonstrations. In February this year, the Israeli Military Advocate General announced investigations into 11 killings, including of two children, along the Israel-Gaza fence. Aside from this media announcement, there has been no information on the status of any such investigations in the public domain.
I am concerned that despite the imperative of protecting children, many children continue to be present every Friday at the fence, where they are exposed to unacceptable levels of violence. While Israel bears the main responsibility for any killing and injury of these children, little efforts seem to have been made by the organizers of the demonstrations and the authorities in Gaza to prevent children from travelling to the demonstration sites. Children must never be the target of violence, and neither should they be put at risk of violence or encouraged to participate in violence.
Thank you, Mr President.