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(Jerusalem) - 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 today. 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."

Reports From the Nakba Day Protest Sites

An estimated 50,000 people gathered in Maroun al-Rass for a planned commemoration of Nakba Day, according to four participants. A Human Rights Watch researcher was also present to monitor the demonstration. The witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at 10:45 a.m., a group of protesters tried to move toward the nearby border fence, but that Lebanese anti-riot police, crowd-control officials with clubs, and Lebanese military pushed them back. Ibrahim Dirani, a photojournalist who was near the border, said that "when they [Lebanese army] fired in the air to push the protesters back, the protesters got excited and started throwing rocks at the [Lebanese] army." At around noon, a group of several hundred people, primarily young men, overwhelmed the security forces and ran toward the fence.

A second witness who was close to the fence told Human Rights Watch:

When they reached the fence, they started throwing rocks toward the Israeli side. There were some Israeli soldiers but you could not see them that well. They were hidden behind the trees... Suddenly, we heard two shots from the Israeli side and saw one protester fall dead.

But the protesters would not be deterred. They continued throwing rocks. At around 2:30 to 3 p.m. a Merkava tank came and released white smoke. Behind the tank and the smoke, more Israeli soldiers arrived. And at that point, we heard a lot more gunfire. It was intermittent fire, as if shot by snipers.

Human Rights Watch observed the Israeli tank as well as what appeared to be a sniper outpost consisting of a small earth mound with a window on the side. Demonstrators close to the fence said they saw more than a dozen Israeli soldiers, many of them behind a row of trees, and a military jeep. "I heard Israeli soldiers shoot every few minutes," the photojournalist said. "It was like the shooting was done by snipers, because after each shot we would see a wounded person fall." Human Rights Watch saw the crowd carrying the apparently dead body of a boy or youth away from the fence, and saw another man, 22-year-old Munib al-Masri, who was shot in the abdomen and taken to a hospital. A third protester was shot in the head and killed.

Human Rights Watch did not see any protesters climb over or breach the fence in Maroun al-Rass. "The protesters were throwing stones," the photojournalist said. "No one tried to get over the fence, they were putting Palestinian flags in the barbed wire. It is a multilayered fence with an electric fence, and no one had the tools to cut through it." Human Rights Watch observed that the protesters converged at a single point in front of the border fence and is not aware of any reports or Israeli claims of other protests along the border or that protesters attempted to breach the border fence elsewhere.

The Lebanese army statement said that Israeli troops killed 10 protesters and injured 112 others. The Israeli military spokesman said Israeli forces "fired warning shots" when "several rioters attempted to breach" the border fence but did not acknowledge any fatalities. Several Israeli news outlets, including The Jerusalem Post and Ynet, reported that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sources blamed the Lebanese army for the shootings that injured civilians. The Israeli military spokesman's office told Human Rights Watch that the military had not officially alleged Lebanese responsibility.

Human Rights Watch's direct observations and the witness accounts contradict the Israeli claims that injuries were due to the Lebanese army and that Israeli soldiers had fired only warning shots. Eleven witnesses who were close to the fence told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese army fired in the air to keep demonstrators away from the fence, but that this occurred before any protesters were injured, and that the shots that injured and killed protesters came from the Israeli side of the fence.

Witnesses said, consistent with Human Rights Watch's observations, that although the protesters threw rocks, they were not armed with guns. Some protesters had crossed bales of coiled barbed wire to stand immediately in front of the border fence, but the protesters were still separated from Israeli soldiers by two rows of fencing, one of them electrified. Human Rights Watch observed a thick row of trees on the Israeli side of the fence, and witnesses said that they observed some Israeli soldiers moving behind these trees, which offered additional protection from rocks. Under the circumstances, the protesters did not pose an imminent threat to the lives of Israeli forces that necessitated the use of lethal force.

None of the witnesses or other reports indicated that Israeli forces had deployed teargas or other non-lethal crowd-control measures before using live ammunition. Lethal force is an inappropriate response to the mere threat of unarmed civilians illegally crossing a border.

Using intentional lethal force where not strictly necessary to protect life is likely to violate the right to life in a non-armed-conflict policing situation such as crowd control, even when carried out by soldiers, Human Rights Watch said. Unjustified killings should be prosecuted as crimes.

Golan Heights
Syrian and Palestinian protesters gathered in the morning at an elevated spot referred to as the "Shouting Hill," near the cease-fire line. Syrian families separated from relatives living in the territory occupied by Israel have traditionally gathered there to communicate through megaphones with relatives on the other side, a witness told Human Rights Watch. Around noon, hundreds of protesters began marching toward the fence, and about 100 protesters breached it and ran across a field suspected of being mined to reach Majd al-Chams, the Golan's largest Druze town, approximately a kilometer away.

Syria's official news agency, SANA, reported that Israeli forces shot and killed four protesters, whom it identified as Obad al-Zaghout, Bashar Ali al-Shehabi, Jehad Maw'ed, and Kays Abu al-Heeja, and who may have been among those who reached Majd al-Shams. The Israeli military spokesman said that forces "fired selectively" at protesters who were "targeting security infrastructure." The spokesman did not specify which infrastructure, though the protesters broke through a fence. The Israeli military detained some protesters and declared the Golan a closed military zone, Israeli Channel 2 television reported.

Human Rights Watch spoke to a man from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus who participated in the protest. "There were 50 buses of Palestinian refugees that went to the Golan in the morning, and we were joined later by other buses of Syrians and Palestinians," he said. He did not know who provided the buses. "When we arrived at the border, we got out of the buses and started shouting slogans. I and some other young protesters climbed a fence and entered the no man's land. There were Syrian soldiers, who didn't prevent us from going but told us that there are landmines in the no man's land and that we should go back." He said:

As we entered the no man's land the IDF was shooting teargas, and some protesters started throwing stones. We broke through the fence and entered the occupied part of the Golan close to Majd al-Chams. There were several fences, and around 100 of us managed to cross the last fence. They started shooting live ammunition, and I saw several protesters get shot. I saw two dead bodies when they were brought back later. One of them was a young man who was shot as he was trying to take down an Israeli flag from a pole. His body had been hit by several bullets.

The witness said that protesters withdrew "because the teargas and the shooting became unbearable." The two dead bodies and an unknown number of wounded were transported back to the Syrian-controlled Golan, he said. The Israeli military has not claimed that any of the demonstrators were armed or members of an armed group.

Northern Gaza
In the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli forces shot at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators near the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, witnesses said. Human Rights Watch was present to monitor the demonstration. According to the Gaza Emergency Response spokesman, Palestinian medics treated 70 people with gunshot wounds, mostly in the lower body, and an additional 40 suffering teargas inhalation.

Human Rights Watch observed that Hamas police and security services stopped a large number of protesters from crossing a checkpoint they had erected about 1.2 kilometers from the Erez crossing point. At noon, a smaller number avoided being stopped at the checkpoint and approached within 300 meters of Erez, in an area that the Israeli military considers a prohibited zone to prevent Palestinian armed groups from planting explosives near or attempting to cross the perimeter barrier. Israeli forces frequently open fire at Palestinians who venture inside that 300 meter perimeter. In the area around the Erez crossing point, Israel has fortified Gaza's perimeter with high concrete walls.

During the demonstration, Human Rights Watch observed at least 20 demonstrators on or near the road leading to the checkpoint being struck with bullets or being evacuated from the area with injuries, primarily from gunshot wounds to the lower body, from live fire from the direction of the crossing point watchtowers. Most were shot inside the 300-meter zone, but Human Rights Watch observed that some were shot as far as 600 to 700 meters from the crossing point. Human Rights Watch was unable to observe whether any warning shots were fired at protesters closest to the crossing point, or whether any protesters threw stones, although protesters were shot in areas where no one was throwing stones. No Israeli soldiers were visible or exposed to risk of harm from stone-throwing.

One of those seriously injured was Mohammed Othman, a photojournalist covering the protest, whom Human Rights Watch observed as he was being evacuated from the area on a stretcher. He was wounded in the chest and the hand, according to the Emergency Response spokesman and media reports, which did not specify the cause of injury.

The wounded were taken to Kamal Adwan hospital in the Jabaliya refugee camp. The medical evacuation of some was delayed because Palestinian ambulances would not enter the prohibited zone for fear of being targeted.

Entering the prohibited zone was the only identifiable reason the protesters were shot. None appeared to pose a threat to the checkpoint infrastructure or to soldiers. Protesters told Human Rights Watch that they could not see the source of gunfire. Human Rights Watch could not see any Israeli soldiers, but all heard gunfire from the direction of Israeli military watchtowers around the Erez crossing point, and all the gunfire that injured protesters appeared to originate from the same direction. The watch towers at Erez have frequently been the source of gunfire into Gaza in the past.

Palestinian demonstrators did not appear equipped to pose a risk of breaching the heavily secured crossing point or the high concrete walls surrounding it. No Israeli soldier was even on the ground, let alone within range of stone-throwers. The demonstrators posed no imminent threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers that would necessitate the use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said.

West Bank
In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot rubber-coated bullets and teargas at Palestinian demonstrators who gathered outside the Qalandiya checkpoint, the main checkpoint in the Israeli separation barrier on the main road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. According to Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, Israeli forces injured 90 protesters near Qalandiya, 10 of them seriously.

Human Rights Watch observed the Qalandiya demonstration, where more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the road and approached to within 50 meters of the checkpoint, in sight of a guard tower in the 8-meter-high separation barrier. There they were met by Israeli forces. Some protesters threw rocks at the soldiers. The military spokesman said that Israeli forces had used "riot dispersal means" against the protesters.

Mohammed Abu Samra, 26, told Human Rights Watch that he had been leading a peaceful group of about 100 protesters about 100 meters from Israeli soldiers in front of the checkpoint. At 2 p.m. soldiers shot him in the back and in the leg with a rubber-coated bullet and a rifle-fired teargas cylinder. "I was shot in the back because I had turned around to tell the group to proceed by walking, then sitting, then walking again to show we were peaceful," he said. "There was another group of protesters throwing rocks but they were 30 meters away from us, but members of our group came under repeated fire."

Another protester in the group, Samir Khreisheh, independently told Human Rights Watch that he saw the bullet and the canister strike Abu Samra. Both men said the protesters were targeted by soldiers whom they saw in elevated positions firing large quantities of teargas at their group, and that soldiers fired tear gas at a house where some of the protesters ran to take shelter. A third member of the group, Khaled Zawahreh, 26, said he was hit with a rubber bullet and lost consciousness twice from the teargas. A fourth, Mohammed Anafeh, said he was hit in the left leg with a teargas canister. He was about 100 meters from the nearest soldiers and not near anyone throwing stones when he was shot, he said.

Teargas may be a lawful means of dispersing crowds in some situations, but directly targeting peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and teargas cylinders may amount to the unlawful use of force, Human Rights Watch said.

In policing situations, security forces may use lethal force only when it is strictly necessary to protect life. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that security forces in such context shall "apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms," and that "whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life." The Basic Principles state that "Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law."


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