JERUSALEM — Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Israel's use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks may constitute war crimes.
The statement was issued Wednesday ahead of an emergency U.N. General Assembly meeting to vote on a resolution condemning Israel's "excessive use of force." A similar Security Council resolution was vetoed earlier this month by the United States for being "fundamentally imbalanced" and "grossly one-sided," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said.
Palestinians have held near-weekly protests since March 30, calling for a "right of return" to ancestral homes now in Israel. At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli fire in protests along the border. The overwhelming majority of the dead and wounded have been unarmed, according to Gaza health officials.
The Israeli military has said its soldiers adhere to the rules of engagement to defend Israeli civilians and security infrastructure from attacks cloaked by the protests.
Human Rights Watch contended in its statement that the mostly unarmed protesters didn't pose an imminent threat to Israeli troops or civilians, and therefore the use of live fire suggests a violation of international law. The organization said eyewitnesses recounted Palestinians were shot from a great distance from the fence, and others who "had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli soldiers" were shot from a closer range.
Israel has been accused of committing war crimes in its three wars in the Gaza Strip in the last decade. Last month the Palestinians urged the International Criminal Court in The Hague to launch an investigation into Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, accusing Israel of systemic crimes.
Israel has called the Palestinian move "legally invalid." Israel is not a member of the ICC and argues the court does not have jurisdiction.
The ICC has conducted a preliminary investigation since 2015 into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, including West Bank settlement construction and war crimes by Israel and Hamas in the 2014 war in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch's Mideast director called on the international community to "impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives."
"The U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry should identify and call for sanctions against officials implicated in ongoing serious human rights violations," Sarah Leah Whitson said.