International condemnation of Israel’s killing of 60 Palestinian protesters in Gaza intensified when tens of thousands of people gathered in the coastal enclave to bury the dead.
The killings took place on Monday during demonstrations at the Gaza border fence, which coincided with a high-profile ceremony to mark the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which overturned decades of US foreign policy.
The UK prime minister, Theresa May, was among those who spoke out strongly on Tuesday. A spokesman said she was “deeply troubled” by Israel’s use of live fire and “the scale of the violence”.
On Tuesday Palestinians marked the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Senior UN officials condemned the recent killings as an “outrageous human rights violation” and said it appeared that anyone approaching the Gaza border fence was liable to be killed by Israeli soldiers. Ireland summoned Israel’s ambassador to protest against the fatalities. Russia and China also expressed their concern over the killings.
But any prospect of the US allowing an investigation under the aegis of the Security Council seemed remote after the American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, threw Washington’s weight behind Israel, saying no country would show the “restraint” that Israel had.
Most of the Gazans who died on Monday were shot by Israeli snipers, Gaza’s health ministry said. According to the Hamas-run ministry, the dead included eight children under the age of 16. At least 2,400 people were wounded.
Summing up the concern of many, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in Geneva: “The mere fact of approaching a fence is not a lethal, life-threatening act, so that does not warrant being shot. It seems that anyone is liable to be shot dead.” He stressed that international laws that applied to Israel made clear that “lethal force may only be used as a measure of last, not first, resort.”
In an apparent dismissal of Israel’s justification for the high casualty levels, Colville said: “It is not acceptable to say that ‘this is Hamas and therefore this is OK.”
Israel has accused Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, of being behind the protests and said it was merely defending its territory.
The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said: “Those responsible for outrageous human rights violations must be held to account.” The World Health Organisation also intervened, saying the scale of the injuries was threatening to overwhelm Gaza’s already beleaguered health system.
Citing figures from the Gazan health ministry and a group of aid agencies, a WHO official, Mahmoud Daher, told the Associated Press that 2,771 people were wounded during Monday’s unrest. Of those, 1,360 were wounded by live fire, 400 by shrapnel and 980 were suffering from gas inhalation. He said the majority of those wounded by live fire were struck in their lower limbs.
As the burials of the dead got under way on Tuesday, a senior Hamas official, Khalil al-Hayya, vowed that the protests in Gaza would continue, while on the West Bank the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, declared a general strike on Tuesday after accusing Israel of “massacres”.
The scenes of lethal violence on Monday were placed side by side on the front pages of many of the world’s newspapers with images from the glossy inauguration of Washington’s new mission about 60 miles away in an affluent Jerusalem neighbourhood. Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, celebrated the opening to clapping and cheering from American and Israeli VIPs.
Critics of the embassy move, which the US president hailed as a “great day” for Israel, said the optics of Monday’s embassy opening and the Gaza deaths would damage Washington’s stature as a mediator between those parties and could have unpredictable consequences.
“Traditionally, we’ve tried to play a role of fireman in the Middle East. Now we’re playing the role of arsonist,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department and Pentagon official who runs the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, joined the US in blaming Hamas for the deaths at the border. He defended his country’s use of force, saying: “Every country has the obligation to defend its borders.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he condemned “the violence of the Israeli armed forces against protesters” in a telephone call withAbbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. He reaffirmed his criticism of the US decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Anger at Trump’s December declaration on the embassy helped to ignite the six-week protest movement. To international condemnation, Israeli snipers have regularly fired on demonstrators during past rallies.
Trump’s decision to move the embassy and to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel dismayed Palestinians, who see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The holy city has been one of the most contentious issues in past negotiations, and broad international consensus has been that its status will be settled under a peace deal, although Trump has said Jerusalem is now “off the table”.
Many Israelis have praised the decision to move the diplomatic mission. The Friends of Zion Museum has put up posters in Jerusalem saying: “Make Israel Great Again”, and US flags have been hung from buildings in the city.