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If the heart be not callous: On the unlawful shooting of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza

Summary, April 2018

Since the wave of protests near the Gaza-Israel fence began almost two weeks ago , the Israeli military has killed 32 Palestinians in Gaza, 26 of them demonstrators, and injured more than 1,000 with live fire. Nine of the casualties were killed on the second Friday of demonstrations, 6 April, by which time the lethal outcome of the open-fire regulations was undeniable. Nonetheless, all state and military officials have steadfastly refused to cancel the unlawful orders and continue to issue – and justify – them.

Ahead of the continued protest planned for today (Friday, 13 April 2018), B’Tselem is issuing a position paper providing its findings regarding the first day of protest (30 March). The paper provides legal analysis explaining why the orders given the soldiers, permitting live fire at unarmed civilians who do not pose a danger, are unlawful. Israeli officials are relying on worst-case scenarios to justify these orders. Yet hypothetical situations – such as thousands of Palestinians crossing the fence into Israel – are not enough to justify prior permission to open lethal fire at demonstrators. In any case, none of these scenarios has, in fact, materialized in the current protests, and it appears that Israel is putting them forward to lay the blame for the high number of deaths and injuries on Hamas.

About half an hour before evening prayers, my friend Shihab, who was standing next to me, headed west to buy a slushy from vendors who had come there with their carts. Suddenly I heard live fire and saw Shihab lying injured on the ground, about four meters from me... The minute I saw Shihab lying on the ground, I feared for his life and wellbeing. I also feared for myself, because I realized the soldiers were aiming directly at people, even onlookers or people standing and protesting peacefully.

Mahmoud Wishah, 19, from al-Bureij Refugee Camp in a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh

The military’s announcement that the general staff investigation mechanism led by Brig. Gen. Motti Baruch will look into the incidents in which Palestinians were killed, focusing on civilian deaths, is pure propaganda, intended – among other things – to prevent an independent international investigation. This mechanism is part of the whitewashing toolkit that the MAG Corps uses to create a semblance of an efficient law enforcement system that works to uncover the truth and ensure accountability.

Israel is treating the protest in Gaza as it has handled similar events in the past: Broad, unlawful use of lethal force at a heavy price to lives, baseless legal interpretations issued to justify this policy, and whitewashing the crimes within days.

Given the combination of local public opinion, which ranges from ardent support to indifference, and a judiciary skilled in draining moral rules of meaning and whitewashing crime, it is difficult to imagine the necessary substantive change coming from within Israel. True, many countries violate human rights. Yet Israel is unique in insisting that its unlawful actions are in keeping with international law. This challenges the very foundations of international law – unlike the conduct of states that make no attempt to lend a semblance of legality to their actions. If the international community does not come to its senses and force Israel to abide by the rules that are binding to every state in the world, it will pull the rug out from under the global effort to protect human rights in the post-WWII era. This is not a merely theoretical concern: Until Israel changes its policy, the Palestinians will continue pay for this state of affairs with life and limb.