U.N.-backed investigators said Thursday Israeli soldiers intentionally fired on civilians and could have committed crimes against humanity during crackdowns against Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza last year that left 189 people dead.
The independent Commission of Inquiry mandated by the Human Rights Council said more than 6,000 people were shot by military snipers using live ammunition to repel protesters near the separation fence.
"The Israeli security forces killed and maimed Palestinian demonstrators who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities," the panel report said.
The panel had confidential information about those believed to be responsible for the killings, including snipers and commanders, which was being given to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet for her to share with the International Criminal Court (ICC), it said.
The panel said that civilians who did not pose an "imminent threat" were among those killed and injured. It acknowledged significant violence linked to the demonstrations, but said they did not amount to combat campaigns, essentially rejecting an Israeli claim of "terror activities" by Palestinian armed groups. Rather, the investigators concluded that the nature of the Palestinian demonstrations was civilian.
"The commission finds that these protests were a call for help from a population in despair," Canton said.
"The commission calls on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza," he said, while also urging Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to improve the living situation in Gaza.
The commission consists of Argentinian human rights official Canton; Sara Hossain, a lawyer at Bangladesh's Supreme Court; and Kaari Betty Murungi, who has worked in several African human rights hot spots.
The three experts and their team conducted more than 300 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, and they gathered thousands of documents for the report that covers the period between late March and the end of last year.
Social media and vast amounts of video material including drone footage were also important sources, they said.
The commission said it would hand over information about those who are allegedly responsible for the rights violations to U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who could share it with international justice bodies such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The commission member noted the upcoming anniversary of the start of the protests and urged all sides to show restraint in order to avoid further bloodshed.
The Great March of Return, a key flashpoint for violence, began when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian demonstrators converged on the buffer zone separating Gaza from Israel, calling for the easing of an Israeli blockade of the territory and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees there to return home to Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.
Israel has responded to the rallies, still held every Friday, with deadly force. Israel was criticized by a U.N. human rights body for its killing of protesters in Gaza and for its treatment of Palestinians, declaring it a "war crime" under the Statute of Rome.
Last year, Palestinians urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, accusing Israel of systemic crimes.
The high casualty toll triggered a diplomatic backlash against Israel and new charges of excessive use of force against unarmed protesters. Rights groups have branded open-fire orders as unlawful, saying they effectively permit soldiers to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.
In the face of growing criticism over Gaza border violence, the Israeli authorities earlier said that human rights laws do not apply to ongoing Palestinian protests along the Gaza Strip.