Geneva: A UN probe on Thursday said there is evidence Israel committed crimes against humanity in responding to last year's protests in Gaza, as snipers targeted people clearly identifiable as children, health workers and journalists.
Israel immediately rejected the findings as "hostile, deceitful and biased." The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory investigated violations committed during demonstrations in the Gaza strip between March 30 and December 31 of 2018.
"Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law," committee chair Santiago Canton said in a statement.
"Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity," he added.
The commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in May, said that "more than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers" during weeks of protest.
"The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such," it said.
Israel's foreign minister said the Jewish State "rejects the report outright." "No institution can negate Israel's right to self-defence and its duty to defend its residents and borders from violent attacks," Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a statement.
Among the most contentious question surrounding the Gaza protests was whether the Palestinian protesters posed a grave threat to Israeli troops.
The UN investigators stressed that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli troops killed and injured Palestinians "who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat." The commission also dismissed claims by Israel that the protests were aimed to conceal acts of terrorism.
"The demonstrations were civilian in nature," it said.
"Despite some acts of significant violence, the Commission found that the demonstrations did not constitute combat or military campaigns." The investigators told reporters in Geneva that they did not have access to the Israeli military's rules of engagement concerning the suppression of protests.
But, based on publicly available evidence including submissions to Israeli's Supreme Court, the commission said there is evidence that Israeli troops have been instructed that they can use lethal force against those who may be inciting others to engage in dangerous protests.
The so-called "main inciters" provision is totally at odds with international law and must be removed from Israel's rules of engagement, Canton told reporters.
The commission said it conducted 325 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, while reviewing more than 8,000 documents.
Investigators also looked at drone footage and other audiovisual material.
Israel did not cooperate with the probe or provide access to Gaza.
For Katz, blame should be placed on Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.
Those "pushing the residents of Gaza to the fences, including women and children, is Hamas, an organisation whose declared goal is destroying the state of Israel, and is the one to bear the responsibility," he said.
Canton said the commission considered Hamas's culpability for the bloodshed, but stressed that because the demonstrations were generally peaceful in nature, Hamas was under no obligation to stop them.
"People have the right to demonstrate, they have the right to assembly," he told reporters.
"So to put responsibility on the de facto authority for letting those demonstrations happen (is) against international humanitarian law," he added.
At least 251 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since March 2018, the majority shot during weekly border protests and others hit by tank fire or air strikes in response to violence from Gaza.
Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.