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(Jerusalem) - 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.

Detailed accounts from witnesses are below.

Accounts from Witnesses

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that protesters began to gather at about 10 a.m. on June 5, on a hill on the Syrian side of a demilitarized zone, several hundred meters wide, near the town of Majdal Shams. The witnesses estimated that there were as many as 1,000 people on the hill. Syrian security personnel at checkpoints did not attempt to stop the crowds from reaching the area, a protester said; Syrian residents usually need a permit to enter the area.

A large number of Israeli security forces arrived in the area in the morning and remained throughout the day. They included scores of soldiers, police, and riot control police in protective gear, as well as mounted police and around 10 or a dozen military armored vehicles, witnesses said.

Later in the morning, protesters began to walk down the hill into the no-man's land. Residents of Majdal Shams heard Israeli forces announcing that the demonstrators would be shot if they approached the fence. A protester from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, who had participated in a previous attempt to cross the border into Majdal Shams on May 15, said Israeli troops began shooting at protesters soon after they entered the no-man's land.

The Israelis started to shoot immediately as we approached the first fences. I saw three Israeli soldiers - there may have been more - who had entered the Syrian side of the area, around 400 meters on our right as we were facing the border fence. The shooting came from there. As soon as we approached the fence they shot, hitting one man in the head and two in the chest, killing all three. The shooting continued again and again as the youths tried to cross the no-man's land, individual shots and machine gun fire.

Several hundred protesters eventually entered the area. The witnesses said that protesters advanced as far as the barbed-wire-filled ditch, around 100 meters from the second fence, which the Israeli military dug about two weeks earlier.

Salman Fakherldin, a Majdal Shams resident, said he arrived at about noon to watch the demonstrations from the Israeli side of the fence.

The Israelis were shooting all day long, starting at midday or early afternoon. I saw shooting by three different groups of soldiers. It was sporadic but overall very intensive. All the shooting was at protesters who were around 150 meters away, in the no-man's land, where there's a big trench around four meters wide and two meters deep. The protesters were trying to reach it, and the soldiers shot at people who made it to the trench. I saw at least 10 people get shot and carried away by the other protesters.

Shifa' Abu Jabal, a lawyer from Majdal Shams, interviewed separately, provided a similar description of events, but added that the soldiers appeared to fire warning shots first. She said she saw a man shot in the chest after he reached the trench.

Nizar Ayoub, a researcher who was monitoring the demonstrations for Al-Haq, a Palestinian rights group based in Ramallah, said that the protesters who made it as far as the trench burned a car tire to create a smoke cover and threw rocks, "but they were far away from the Israeli fence and nothing reached the army." The only person he saw who crossed the trench planted a Palestinian flag at around 3 p.m., and was shot and then evacuated by other young men, he said.

Witnesses consistently told Human Rights Watch that Israeli troops first fired tear gas at the protesters at around 5 or 6 p.m., after hours of shooting live ammunition.

Dr. Tayseer Mir'i, a resident of Majdal Shams, said that at around that time, youths from Majdal Shams also began throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, because, he said, the troops were continuing to shoot at protesters in the demilitarized zone while medics from Syria were attending to the injured. Israeli military spokesmen said that forces suspended fire several times to allow medics to evacuate the wounded. The Palestinian protester from Syria volunteered to help medical teams and said that medics had negotiated a five-minute ceasefire with the Israeli military to allow the evacuation of the wounded.

Israeli forces then began to fire tear gas at the youths, until a group of older men from Majdal Shams intervened and the youths stopped throwing rocks, witnesses said. The doctor said that a local clinic treated several town residents for minor injuries and tear-gas inhalation.

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