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Following the deaths of 17 Palestinians during protests that started yesterday in the Gaza Strip and the injuring of hundreds of others, Amnesty International is calling on the Israeli authorities to put an immediate end to its heavy handed, and often lethal, suppression of Palestinian demonstrations. The organization is also calling for independent and effective investigations to be launched immediately into reports that Israeli soldiers have unlawfully used firearms against unarmed protesters. Israel must respect the human rights to life and to peaceful protest amid concerns that the crackdown against protesters demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees will continue.

“The Israeli authorities must stop using lethal and other excessive force against Palestinian protesters once and for all. At least 17 people have died, and hundreds have been injured, since the protests began and there are no signs the authorities plan to reverse their policies and abide by their international legal obligations. The fact that live ammunition has been used against unarmed protesters is deeply troubling, and these deaths must be investigated as possible unlawful killings. Under international human rights law lethal force can only be used to defend lives from imminent risk,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The Israeli authorities are obligated to respect the right to peaceful protest and, even if violence may occur, only the minimum force necessary to address it can be used. Having consistently ignored the human rights of Palestinian refugees for 70 years, Israel must at least hear their demands and allow peaceful demonstrations and protests to take place.”

Videos posted on social media appear to show unarmed Palestinian protesters being shot by Israeli soldiers while waving the Palestinian flag or running away from the fence.

On 29 March the Israeli forces announced the deployment of 100 snipers to the border, as well as increased security in the form of tanks and drones. The Israeli military stated that it had “enforced a closed military zone” in the areas near the fence that separates Gaza and Israel, and the Israeli Minister of Defence warned that those approaching the fence were “putting their lives in danger”.

Since Friday 30 March, at least 17 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and approximately 1,400 have been injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Among those injured, some 750 people have been hit with live ammunition and 20 are reported to be in a critical condition. Others have been injured with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Israeli forces claim that those killed were trying to cross the fence between Gaza and Israel or were “main instigators.” Reports indicate that Palestinian protesters have thrown stones, Molotov cocktails and burnt tyres.

“While some Palestinian demonstrators have thrown stones and other objects towards the fence, it’s hard to believe how this would be an imminent danger to the lives of well-equipped soldiers protected by snipers, tanks and drones. When policing protests, the army may only resort to force for a legitimate purpose, and only when other means remain ineffective”.

The protests known as the “Great March of Return” were launched on 30 March to coincide with Palestinian Land Day, and are demanding the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees to their villages and towns in what is now Israel. The protests are expected to last until 15 May, when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba or “great catastrophe”. The day marks the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands in 1948-9 during the conflict following the creation of the state of Israel.

“The Israeli authorities must launch effective and independent investigations into all incidents in which unnecessary or excessive force appears to have been used and bring those suspected of being responsible to justice. This is all the more important when the use of lethal force has resulted in serious injury and loss of life. A failure to do so will only perpetuate years of impunity.” said Magdalena Mughrabi.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared today to be a day of mourning, and Palestinians have observed a general strike in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.