March 30 was supposed to be a day of peaceful protests for Palestinians who had lost or were driven from their homes in 1948, following the creation of Israel.
However, their demonstration turned deadly when the Israeli soldiers opened fire on the Palestinians, killing 18 and injuring hundreds.
Thousands of Palestinians organized a mass sit-in on Land Day, which is a day for Palestinians to recognize the their connection to the “territory of Palestine … and their roots in it,” according to Omar Shakir, the director of Israel and Palestine for Human Rights Watch. The protests also condemned the crippling land, air and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on Gaza since 2007.
“A majority of Gaza’s population, of course, are refugees, so activists have called for a Great March of Return, where a large number of Palestinians from Gaza would march towards Gaza’s borders as a symbolic act of protest, both to recognize their connection to the territory and also to seek their right of return,” Shakir explained.
The Palestinians set up a vast encampment around 500 meters from the heavily fortified eastern border of Gaza and Israel, to stay in place until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Nakba, (Arabic for “catastrophe”) the loss of Palestinians’ homes that accompanied the founding of Israel. The demonstration was supposed to be peaceful. However, small groups of young Palestinians reportedly burned tires and threw stones and makeshift Molotov cocktails at the Israeli soldiers. Some reportedly straddled or even entered the “buffer zone” Israel had established 300 meters around its border and the Gaza strip.
Entering an off-limits zone should not be punishable by death.
However, “in the days ahead, senior Israeli officials made quite clear their intention was to fire on both what they call 'instigators' or those individuals that they felt… were key contributors to the demonstration as well as anyone who approached the fence,” according to Shakir.
They did not define what they meant by the term “instigator.”
“So, while they claimed it was people who wanted to cross the fence, the reality is they treated the buffer zone, or as some call it, the no-go zone, as a free-fire zone. So the chief of staff of the Israeli army ordered 100 snipers to be in place and these individuals fired live ammunition at a largely peaceful demonstration that posed no imminent threat to the soldiers — and that’s a threshold required under international law,” stated HRW’s Israel and Palestine director.
The site of protest soon turned into a site of massacre.
“Under international law, a force has the right indeed to respond to someone trying to cross the fence. But that response is guided by international law and international law makes clear that you can only use lethal force — live ammunition is lethal force — when there is an imminent threat to the life of a soldier,” explained Shakir.
The situation did not apply for the show of violence. But the Israelis responded with live ammunition, without fear of consequences, killing 18 and injuring 1,415, more than 700 of them with live bullets.
Many of the patients in the hospital the Human Rights Watch was able to visit were injured with bullets to their limbs — and many injuries are serious, with a possibility of lifelong disability. Almost all of the people who were killed were shot in the head or chest, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Israeli government has refused to open an inquiry into the deadly incident and top officials like the defense minister and the prime minister of Israel both commended the actions of their soldiers.
This says quite a lot about how cheaply Israel views the lives of the Palestinians.
“The track record of Israel is quite clear. It’s a white wash operation. For decades now, Israel, when it comes to serious abuses, such as the use of, unlawful use of lethal force, in some cases, opens investigations, but in all cases, with little, few exceptions, fails to actually hold accountable, perpetrators of serious abuse. But it’s not surprising that Israeli officials don’t want to open investigations. Investigation would make crystal clear that senior Israeli officials ordered soldiers to fire on demonstrators who did not pose an imminent threat and bear responsibilities of unlawful killings of 14 demonstrators,” said Shakir.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation into the massacre.
However, after this recent incident, the violence may not be over. Although protests largely died down over the week as relatives mourned their dead, thousands of Palestinians are expected to return to the border on Friday.
“There’s an opportunity for Israel to change course but the indications are that they intend to continue forward,” said Shakir.
Indeed, an Israel Defense Force spokesperson threatened to send troops over the border if the situation exacerbates.
Palestinian organizers have claimed they will stage a mass march toward the border on May 15. Israeli officials have voiced concerns some demonstrators may attempt to breach the fence itself.
If that becomes the case, it could result in a more prolonged conflict between Israel and Gaza. And as the Israelis have demonstrated, they do not shy away from bloodshed.
“This was not a situation of excessive force,” said Shakir. “This was a calculated, bloody crackdown planned at the highest levels of Israeli government, with full awareness that it would lead to the killing of unarmed demonstrators.”
Banner/Thumbnail credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem