Palestinian protesters collapse after being fired upon with tear gas by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel. Picture: Adel Hana/AP
For years many of the political elite in South Africa viewed human rights organisations like Amnesty International with suspicion. The refrain was often the same - “double standards”. It was often felt that Amnesty International and other rights watch dogs would cherry pick the issues they highlighted, but when it came to the Palestinians or Western Sahara they were less than robust, to put it diplomatically. That is what gave rise to the perception that these organisations mirrored the agendas of the West and capitulated to pressure from lobby groups and foreign governments.

But in recent years the tide has been turning and these organisations have become far more vocal than in the past about human rights violations in the occupied territories. What was astounding this week was the press release put out by Amnesty International, renewing its call on governments worldwide to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel after the country’s disproportionate response to mass demonstrations along the fence that separates the Gaza strip from Israel. The call went even further, saying that if Israel doesn’t prosecute those responsible for human rights violations, the International Criminal Court should open a formal investigation into possible war crimes.

The people of Gaza have endured three wars over the past 11 years, as well as the illegal Israeli blockade that has decimated their economy and turned the Gaza strip into the world’s largest open-air prison. But, finally, the world’s human rights activists are sitting up and taking note.

The official Israeli position is that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the blockade only keeps out dangerous dual-use materials that could conceivably be used to make rockets and end up in the hands of Hamas. But, in reality, according to the UN, the long list of items that are prohibited from entering Gaza include crayons, soccer balls, stationery, musical instruments, wheelchairs and dry food items such as chocolate and potato chips.

The water in Gaza is practically undrinkable, but for months the blockade prevented water filters from entering Gaza, which posed a serious threat to public health. Despite the fact that the blockade contravenes article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits collective penalties, the US has been completely silent on the blockade and continued to provide Israel US$4 billion in aid annually.

Did it take a Gandhian-style rolling protest in Gaza at the border fence that was met with injuries exacted on thousands of civilians over the past month to wake up the passive and impartial in the context of this intractable conflict?

The Israeli military has killed an estimated 35 Palestinians and injured more than 5500 others since March 30th - some with what Amnesty International says appear to be deliberately-inflicted life-changing injuries. Despite wide international condemnation, the Israeli army has not reversed its illegal orders to shoot unarmed protesters.

The organisers of the “Great March of Return” have repeatedly stated that the protests are intended to be peaceful, and they have largely involved sit-ins, concerts, sports games, speeches and other peaceful activities.

While some Palestinian protesters did approach the fence, throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and others burning tyres, evidence gathered by Amnesty International, Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups show that Israeli soldiers shot unarmed protesters, bystanders, journalists and medical staff approximately 150-400m from the fence, where they did not pose any threat.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the heavy-handed response of the Israeli Defence Force is the type of ammunition used against civilians, and the pattern of injuries. In most of the fatal cases analysed by Amnesty International, victims were shot in the upper body, including the head and the chest - some from behind. In addition, doctors at the European and Shifa hospitals in Gaza City reported that many of the serious injuries they have witnessed are to the lower limbs, including the knees, which are typical of war wounds that they have not observed since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

According to Amnesty International, the nature of these injuries suggests that Israeli soldiers are using high-velocity military weapons designed to cause maximum harm to Palestinian protesters. According to a recent statement by Doctors Without Borders, half of the more than 500 patients admitted to its clinics were treated for injuries “where the bullet has literally destroyed tissue after having pulverised the bone”. Many youths have been hit with an explosive type of ammunition known as “the butterfly”.

The Israeli Defence Forces spokesman has explicitly said that “nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed”. This can only mean that the thousands of injuries to civilians in the head, chest, back, and knees were intentional.

To raise genuine concern about these developments is to insist that human rights are indivisible. It is by no means anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, but a rallying call that all nations adhere to international human rights conventions equally.

* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor.