UN Human Rights Commissioner is only UN official to deal with reports that minefields took toll on Golan protesters

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay [of India] is the only UN official to deal with reports that minefields had taken a toll among protestors in the Golan Heights on Sunday.

Pillay’s statement did not take on the question of reports that Israeli Defense Forces had laid new minefields in recent weeks to stop Palestinian and Syrian protestors from infiltrating via the Golan.

A UNHCR spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon that he had been unaware of these reports, which were published earlier in the week in the Israeli media [see yesterday’s post on this blog].

“The Government of Israel has a duty to ensure that its security personnel avoid the use of excessive force”, Pillay said in a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, and posted here.

The statement, put out in Pillay’s name, also notes that “Reports have suggested that more than 20 civilians were killed and hundreds injured as a result of Israeli gunfire. Other reports suggest some of the casualties may have been caused by the detonation of landmines buried on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line“.

This wording avoids dealing with the possibility, suggested by Israeli media reports this week, that Israeli Defense Forces actually laid new minefields since May 15, when Israeli lines were overrun in the Golan Heights by Palestinian demonstrators from Syria, and some of their supporters, succeeded in entering the town of Majdal Shams.

It is not clear exactly where — assuming that this week’s Israeli media reports, sourced to IDF officials, are true — these reported newly-laid mine fields are actually located.

At a demonstration last Sunday, called to mark the anniversary of the June 1967 war and the start of the Israeli occupation (of the Golan Heights as well as the West Bank and Gaza), an uncertain number of demonstrators died or were wounded from mine explosions.

The first indications of the mine explosions came, in fact, from accounts given by IDF spokespersons themselves.

They said, disingenuously, that in these cases, the Palestinian and Syrian protesters should be held responsible for their own injuries because they failed to heed oral warnings — issued in Arabic, the IDF stressed — and because some protesters supposedly threw Molotov cocktails onto one minefield, thereby setting off one or more explosions.

This avoids the serious question of whether or not the IDF carried out proper notification — both to Syrian authorities and to UN peacekeeping missions working in the Golan — and also whether or not the minefields were properly marked, particularly any minefields which might have been newly-laid, in order to provide adequate warning to the demonstrators themselves.

It avoids directly dealing with reports that the IDF laid new minefields in the past three weeks specifically to stop infiltration by protestors.

And, it does seem to put more blame on Syrian authorities than on Israel, by saying that “Pillay also expressed concern over allegations that civilians were encouraged by the Syrian authorities to protest in areas where landmines are located”.

That is a very serious accusation indeed.

It is not entirely clear, but reports of deadly suppression of violent unrest during funerals Monday in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Damascus do suggest that relatives of the victims had come to believe that one or more parties there also acted with criminal irresponsibility.

The High Commissioner’s statement specified, in words attributed directly to Pillay herself, that — in any case, and at the very least — “Syrian authorities have an obligation to ensure that civilians are prevented from entering areas where landmines are planted”.

The statement did say that both sides should conduct real and credible post-mortem inquiries: “Especially given conflicting allegations on the use of molotov cocktails by protestors, and on whether or not all necessary precautions were taken before the use of live ammunition by security forces, Pillay called on both sides to carry out independent, impartial, transparent and thorough investigations into the events of 5 June”.

Though it is not perfectly clear in the wording above, the statement seemed to be saying, among other things, that accusations of Molotov cocktail throwing by the demonstrators should actually be verified.

Specifically on the use of live fire by Israeli soldiers against the demonstrators, the High Commissioner’s statement said: “However difficult the circumstances, the use of live ammunition against allegedly unarmed protestors, resulting in large numbers of deaths and injuries, inevitably raises the question of unnecessary and excessive use of force”.

And, the statement said, “Where there is evidence that crimes were committed, prosecution and appropriate punishment must follow”.

Pillay’s statement did note that “between 30 and 40 protestors have reportedly been killed by Israeli security forces in the past three weeks”.

Despite a call made by this journalist to the office of the UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon on Tuesday, following the Israel media reports of newly-laid mine fields, no response was given by him.

BAN’s bid for a second term of office has just been announced. And, UN Security Council members are also turning their attention to possible action on the overall situation in Syria, where there has been a large number of deaths among both civilians and security personnel in recent weeks.

A call to UNTSO in Jerusalem on Tuesday has also gone unreturned.

The UN High Commissioner’s statement did end by joining the call made Monday by the UNSG “for maximum restraint on all sides”.

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