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The Clashes of September 1996 Documented Investigation and Analysis Summary of Findings

 

The Clashes of September 1996

Documented Investigation and Analysis

Summary of Findings

10 December, 1996

Introduction

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights carried out an investigation into the clashes, and the evidence obtained has been used to recount the events of 26 – 27 September 1996 in the Gaza Strip.

Our investigations found that on Thursday, 26th September 1996, Israeli military forces used excessive and lethal firepower against Palestinians who were demonstrating at locations throughout the Occupied Territories. This day saw the highest death toll in a single day in the Gaza Strip since the 1967 War; 31 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured, in Gaza alone, and a total of 64 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed, and an estimated 1,600 wounded throughout the Occupied Territories.

It is evident that at every place of confrontation, Israeli soldiers initiated fire, and used live ammunition against stone-throwing Palestinian civilians in grave breach of international law. It is clear from the number and nature of the injuries and deaths that Israeli soldiers aimed to kill or seriously injure. The use of lethal force was without justification, excessive and indiscriminate.

Palestinian police legitimately employed force in response to fire from Israeli forces, to protect their own lives and the lives of civilians. Israeli forces were, for the most part, protected by military fortifications or were within military installations, while limited protection was available to Palestinian police and civilians.

Although it is unclear whether the degree of force employed was sanctioned by the Israeli Government, the fact that the Defence Minister had put the IDF on a state of high alert; that senior Israeli Government figures called for an increase in the use of force; and there were large-scale troop and armament deployments in the Occupied Territories, all point to the Israeli Government’s involvement in the use of force and in the extent this was employed.

The Israeli Government sought to hold the Palestinian Police and the Palestinian Authority responsible for the violence. However, the Palestinian Centre found that at the points of confrontation Israelis fired at unarmed demonstrators and Palestinian police first. At most of the locations, the Palestinian Police sought to control the demonstrations and formed cordons to keep demonstrators away from Israeli settlements and military installations. On occasion, Palestinian Police came under fire whilst seeking to control the demonstrators.

The Israeli Government must accept responsibility for the violence that erupted on Thursday, 26th September 1996, and for the unlawful killing of Palestinian civilians and the injuries caused to hundreds of others.

The Causes

The demonstrations in Gaza followed news of protests the previous day on 25th September in Ramallah. Seven Palestinian civilians died in those confrontations and many others were injured. The protests, both in Gaza and the West Bank, were sparked by the Israeli Government’s decision to open a tunnel near the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. These proved to be the catalysts, other factors contributed to the feeling of outrage and frustration:

– Palestinians have suffered grave economic hardship as the Israeli military closure of the Occupied Territories continues to cause devastation to the weak economies of Gaza and the West Bank. The Gaza Strip’s unemployment rate runs at around 70 percent, GNP has dropped by 20 percent, and inflation is at 18 percent.

– The redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron, scheduled to take place in March 1996, was unilaterally postponed by the previous Israeli administration. The Netanyahu administration has delayed further redeployments scheduled in other areas of the West Bank in violation of the Interim Agreements.

– Approximately 3,500 Palestinian prisoners are still held in Israeli prisons, in violation of the IV Geneva Convention. They are reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and are deprived of basic human rights.

– While publicly maintaining a policy of Israeli settlement expansion freezing, the settler population actually increased by an estimated 39 percent under the Labour administration. The Netanyahu Government has drastically and publicly accelerated Israel’s campaign of settlement expansion and confiscation of Palestinian land.

– Israel is pursuing a policy which seeks to isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the Occupied Territories. Settlements are being expanded to encircle East Jerusalem; the identity cards of Palestinian Jerusalemites are being confiscated and building permits are denied to Palestinian residents of the city.

– The Interim Agreements did not bring an end to the Israeli occupation which continues in both a legal and physical form. Israel controls 40 percent of the land inside the Gaza Strip and 97 percent in the West Bank; Israeli military forces exercise control and enforce military orders in respect of the Palestinian population.

Sequence of Events

On the morning of 26th September 1996, students conducted marches throughout the Gaza Strip to protest the tunnel-opening and the killing of seven Palestinians in Ramallah the previous day. The students, joined by thousands of other demonstrators, marched to areas still under the control of Israeli military forces, including Israeli settlements, military installations, and border checkpoints.

Kfar Darom: The demonstrations began around 07.00 hours local time, when students and other demonstrators from Deir al-Balah began to arrive at the Kfar Darom settlement. Demonstrators began to throw stones at Israeli military. Initially Israeli forces responded with tear gas, after some ten minutes they deployed automatic weapons, including 500 mm machine guns. These weapons were employed indiscriminately at the demonstrators. Within a short period 18 people were wounded. Seven people in total were killed at Kfar Darom by Israeli soldiers and armed Israeli settlers who participated in the shooting.

News of the incident at Kfar Darom spread quickly throughout the Gaza Strip and contributed to subsequent confrontations at the following other locations around the Gaza Strip:

    Netsarim: At around 08.30 hours, hundreds of students and other Palestinian civilians arrived at the junction to Netsarim settlement just south of Gaza City, on the main road between Gaza City and Rafah. The Palestinian police prevented the demonstrators from reaching the Israeli military installation at the junction, though a number were able to reach areas closer to the installation, through surrounding orange groves, and began to throw stones. The stone-throwers were at least 100 metres away, when Israeli troops responded with live ammunition. At around 10.00 hours, 30 additional Palestinian policemen arrived, and joined the Palestinian police already forming a cordon at the junction to stop the demonstrators. Later, under direct Israeli fire, Palestinian police responded by returning fire. Eight Palestinians were killed and 75 wounded by Israeli forces at Netsarim.

    Erez Checkpoint: At around 09.00 hours, students began to march from nearby Jabaliya refugee camp toward Erez checkpoint. Palestinian policemen were unable to prevent a number of Palestinian demonstrators from passing the Palestinian checkpoint and beginning to throw stones at Israeli soldiers. After using tear gas and rubber bullets, Israeli troops, at points joined by Israeli settlers, fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition. Medical personnel were also targeted at Erez. While trying to evacuate one of the wounded, a nurse was shot in the chest and killed. In another incident, Israeli forces shot at an ambulance, hitting the driver in the back. Two journalists were also wounded by Israeli fire at Erez. In all, eight Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during these clashes.

    Gani Tel Settlement: Events spread to the Khan Younis area aroun08.00 hours when students headed toward the Israeli military checkpoint near Gani Tal settlement. Palestinian police confronted the crowd gathered at the checkpoint and tried to disperse the demonstration. After students began to throw stones, Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then began to shoot with live ammunition. After Israeli fire had rapidly escalated to random shooting at everyone in the area, Palestinian police returned fire in order to defend themselves and Palestinian civilians. During these clashes three Palestinians were killed.

    – Gush Katif Junction: Around 09.00 hours, a group of students from schools in the eastern villages of Khan Younis headed toward Gush Katif junction and Kesofim checkpoint on the main north-south road in the Gaza Strip. Some demonstrators managed to bypass the Palestinian police, who were trying to control the crowds, by going through nearby orange groves, and began to throw stones at the Israeli observation station located on top of one of the buildings near the junction. Israeli forces then opened fire. Cobra attack helicopters were called in to shoot at the demonstrators. The attack helicopters fired randomly into nearby residential areas, wounding many who were inside houses and unconnected with the fighting. Two people were killed in the clashes at Gush Katif.

    Rafah: At around 08.00 hours, around 100 students headed toward the border crossing near Salah al-Din Gate on the Egyptian border. Upon their arrival, they began to throw stones at the Israeli military position located between the barbed wire fences marking the Gazan and Egyptian borders. The Palestinian police were unable to control the large number of demonstrators, and within half an hour the clashes had spread along the entire Palestinian-Egyptian border, which is controlled by the Israeli army. After Israeli troops opened fire on the demonstrators and on Palestinian police, Palestinian police responded by returning fire. Two people were killed and 40 injured during these clashes. Although the situation had calmed by mid-day, it flared up once again in the afternoon. Israeli forces responded forcefully to these renewed confrontations, firing indiscriminately from two helicopters and launching small missiles into areas near the border. Other confrontations took place in the morning hours at the junction to Morag settlement north of Rafah, in which two Palestinian officers and another Palestinian policeman were wounded.

The Killing of Civilians and Medical Personnel

On the basis of this reconstruction of events, it is concluded that Israeli military forces are responsible for the unlawful killing and injuring of Palestinian civilians, including children, medical personnel, journalists, and civilian police officers in the Gaza Strip on 26th and 27th September. Israeli forces violated the absolute prohibition in international law on the use of lethal military force against civilians. In so doing, Israel committed grave breaches of the IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, to which it is a Party.

Also in grave breach of international law, Israeli forces fired on medical teams aiding the wounded in the field and transporting them in emergency vehicles. In accordance with the international laws of war, all ambulances were clearly marked and medical personnel wore appropriate distinguishing uniforms. Among the casualties were an ambulance driver who was shot in the back; a nurse who was shot in the abdomen, chest and shoulder; and a nurse who was shot and killed. There was a sufficient number of such incidents to indicate that medical personnel and vehicles were deliberately targeted by Israeli troops.

Involvement of Palestinian Police Officers

Palestinian police officers were present at the demonstrations to maintain order. The documented evidence shows that at every clash point the police sought to contain the demonstrations by preventing demonstrators from approaching Israeli checkpoints, military positions, and Israeli settlements, at times resorting to force to do so. The Palestinian Centre has documented a number of cases in which Israeli forces fired on Palestinian police while the Palestinian police were attempting to control civilian demonstrators.

It is apparent that Israeli troops initiated the exchange of fire with Palestinian police officers and that Palestinian police returned fire in self-defence, in accordance with accepted standards of international law and rules of engagement. This defensive use of fire by the Palestinian police caused the death of Israeli military personnel. However, as this use of force was in accordance with the norms and principles of international law, Israeli military personnel were legitimately fired upon and their deaths were therefore not unlawful.

Excessive, Indiscriminate, and Unnecessary Use of Force

The Israeli army opened fire with live ammunition in response to stone-throwing by Palestinian demonstrators. Given the strength of Israeli military fire power, the fortification of their military installations, and the long distance from which Palestinians were throwing stones, it is apparent that Israeli forces had a choice of means with which to respond. Riot-control equipment was not used, as it should have been. The evidence suggests that Israeli military personnel shot with lethal intent at unarmed civilians.

Israeli forces have at their disposal, and carry as a matter of course, riot control equipment. Tear gas and water cannons, for example, could have been legitimately used to quell the demonstrations in which stone throwing took place. On the basis of accounts given by witnesses, however, there did not appear to be any point at which Palestinians posed a significant threat to military positions, personnel, or settlers. At no point therefore was the employment of lethal force and heavy combat equipment necessary. Furthermore, the use of live ammunition appeared to be directed at killing or very seriously injuring demonstrators, rather than aimed at dispersing them. This is evidenced by the location of the injuries of Palestinians killed and wounded during the clashes, which were sustained in the head, neck, chest, and abdominal areas.

Unarmed civilians are never legitimate military targets, and all military force employed against them is a grave breach of the laws of war. Palestinian police carry the status of civilians (as opposed to military) under the Interim Agreements and the Laws of War, and thus cannot be legitimate military targets. Although they lost their non-combatant status, becoming legitimate targets once they returned Israeli military fire, Israel was still subject to the fundamental principle of international law which specifies that the use of force must be proportionate to the achievement of the military objective and necessary to achieve it. In addition, accounts suggest that Israeli forces fired randomly at both civilians and police officers, in violation of international law.

Israeli forces employed excessive force, particularly in its deployment of additional tanks and armoured personnel carriers throughout the Gaza Strip. Cobra gun-ship helicopters were employed in Rafah and Khan Younis, and snipers and sharp-shooters were used against civilian and civilian houses in populated areas.

Statistics of Deaths and Injuries

According to hospital statistics, 39.3 percent of Palestinians wounded by live ammunition were hit in the upper part of the body. Twenty-nine percent of those who were killed were shot in the back or in the back of the head. Many of those killed were shot from considerable distances.

These statistics indicate both that at the time they were shot demonstrators posed no immediate threat, and that Israeli forces employed snipers and sharp-shooters against the demonstrators. This has been corroborated by eyewitness testimony.

It is significant that the clashes resulted in an extremely high number of casualties among children. Of the 30 Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip during the clashes, one-third were 18 years of age or under, and 53.9 of the total number of documented wounded persons were 18 or under.

Involvement of Israeli Settlers

Israeli settlers are generally well-armed. Settlers participated in firing upon Palestinian civilians during the clashes at Erez checkpoint and at Kfar Darom settlement in the Gaza Strip. It is apparent from the documented evidence that at no time did the Palestinian protesters present a threat to the lives or property of the settlers, who live in well-fortified compounds, behind high electrified and barbed fences and surrounded by hundreds of well-armed Israeli soldiers. As it was not in self-defence, this use of fire power was without legal justification and therefore constitutes a criminal act. Those responsible for the death and injury of Palestinians should be held to account for their actions.

Rules of Engagement in the Interim Agreements

The Interim Agreements contain provisions for co-operation and joint security activities, dispute resolution, and for rules of engagement in a worst-case scenario. It is evident that these were disregarded by Israeli military during the clashes.

For example, according to rules of engagement contained in the Israeli-Palestinian Interim agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip 1995 (the Taba Agreement), Annex I, Article XI(3), Israeli forces may carry out engagement steps in cases where an act or incident constitutes a danger to life or property, and this engagement must be aimed at preventing or terminating such an act or incident; any action on the part of the Israeli authorities must be taken with a view to transferring continued handling of the incident to the Palestinian police. Clearly, shooting at Palestinian police was not in accordance with these provisions. Paragraph (3d) of the Article prohibits the use of firearms except as a last resort and after firing shots into the air has failed to control an act or incident; shots fired should then not be directed at the killing of perpetrators, but for deterrent and apprehension purposes. The use of firearms should cease as soon as the danger has passed. Israeli soldiers continued firing up until the very last moment when Israeli commanding officers and Palestinian Police Officers agreed to stop firing.

It is evident that Israeli military authorities violated these limitations and in fact disregarded the rules of engagement which Israel helped formulate, and to which it is a party.

The Aftermath of the Clashes

Under the premiership of Binyamin Netanyahu, the response of the Israeli Government to the bloody events of late September 1996 has exacerbated the feelings of anger and frustration of the Palestinian people which led to the clashes in the first place. Relative calm returned in a matter of days to the Occupied Territories, but the underlying factors behind the unrest of late September 1996 have still not been addressed. The economic situation continues to deteriorate under the ongoing Israeli closure of the Occupied Territories, and tensions continue to run high. The political situation remains highly unstable, and the ingredients for a repetition of these bloody events remain omnipresent.

In public statements and actions since the outbreak of violence, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been combative, rather than appeasing, and this has been perceived by many as further provoking an already explosive situation. The Israeli government has yet to make any concessions concerning the issues which led to the unrest, and instead has accused the PNA of incitement. Furthermore, in a press conference held 26th September, Prime Minister Netanyahu commended the actions of Israeli forces and strongly indicated that he would permit the use of stronger military force against further demonstrations by Palestinian civilians. These are highly provocative statements in an already charged environment. Israel needs to fulfil its obligations under the agreement and to sincerely participate in the negotiations, with the aim of resolving the fundamental issues of the conflict.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights calls upon the international community to intervene to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and to take action to prevent a recurrence of violence in the Occupied Territories.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights calls upon the international community to:

    1 – Ensure that the Israeli government respects the letter and the spirit of the agreements it has signed with the PLO and implements them in good faith. This should include, inter alia:

    a) Redeployment in Hebron,

    b) The release of Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli prisons and detention centres,

    c) The implementation of safe passages ensuring the territorial integrity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and guaranteeing freedom of movement for persons, vehicles, and goods.

    2 – Prevent the Israeli government from creating facts on the ground and prejudicing the final status negotiations. The international community must pressure Israel to cease all activity altering the status quo in the Occupied Territories, including Jerusalem, and to, inter alia:

    a) Close the underground tunnel opened near the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem,

    b) Cease all unilateral activity in Jerusalem, including policies aimed at driving out the city’s Palestinian population and isolating the city from the rest of the Occupied Territories,

    c) Halt all building and expansion of settlements,

    d) Put an end to the expropriation of Palestinian land, whether for settlements or bypass roads to settlements inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

    3 – Ensure that Israel begins in earnest negotiations on final status issues, reaffirming clearly and unequivocally its commitment to fulfil signed agreements and their aims.

    4 – Provide protection for Palestinian civilians, as the Israeli authorities have failed to live up to their obligations to do so as required by the IV Geneva Convention, and provide the Palestinian people all appropriate means of support.

    5 – Pressure Israel to take action to prevent the further deterioration of the economic situation in the Occupied Territories, and to lift the closure on the Occupied Territories immediately and guarantee freedom of movement of persons, vehicles, and goods.

    6 – Ensure that those who have used excessive force against civilians, including soldiers and settlers, are held accountable for their actions. If the Israeli government does not fulfil its obligations to hold these individuals accountable as provided for by the IV Geneva Convention, the parties to this Convention are under obligation to ensure that these individuals are pursued and brought to justice in accordance with Articles 146 and 147 of the Convention.

    7 – Guarantee compensation to the victims of Israeli forces’ use of excessive force or to their families.

    8 – Ensure that the United Nations take all possible measures to monitor human rights violations by the Israeli armed forces and take all necessary actions to protect Palestinian civilians.

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