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With a British minister dodging Israeli bullets, will his new boss stand up for international law?

July 13, 2018 at 10:13 am

An injured Palestinian is seen after Israeli forces fired tear gas at protesters during the Great March of Return in Gaza on 29 June 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Now that Jeremy Hunt has replaced Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary in Whitehall, Palestinians are hopeful that there might be some cause for optimism, but if Britain’s top diplomat wants to be taken seriously as a fair-minded politician who cares about human rights, he could start by asking some tough questions of Israel.

The sort of questions I’m talking about are those which Alistair Burt MP, his Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, was clearly unwilling to ask under his old boss. A letter which dropped on my desk today, for example, was written and signed by Burt in response to direct questions about the type of live ammunition being fired by Israeli snipers at Palestinians.

Burt penned his letter on 2 July, before Johnson tendered his resignation in protest against Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. Maybe he was under orders to prevaricate, or perhaps he was reluctant to pick up the phone and ask Tel Aviv a direct question, such as, “What sort of live rounds are you firing at the Palestinians?”

It is a very pertinent question, because numerous medics, doctors, surgeons and even the Director of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Dr Medhat Abbas, have all expressed concern for months now at the extraordinary wounds that they are being confronted with daily, as Palestinians are shot by Israeli troops merely for taking part in peaceful demonstrations near the border with Israel. More than 16,100 people have been wounded since the Great March of Return protests began in Gaza on 30 March. Almost 140 men, women and children have been killed by Israeli snipers using live rounds and “tear gas”, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the besieged territory.

Ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidreh revealed that 18 of those killed were children, as were 2,600 of those who have been wounded; 200 were women. A total of 7,700 of the injured were treated at the scene, while 8,400 were transferred and treated in local hospitals, where 55 people have had limbs amputated. The heroic young woman Razan Al-Najjar was one of two volunteer paramedics of the Palestinian Civil Defence who were shot and killed on duty; 320 of her colleagues have been wounded by live ammunition and tear gas inhalation.

Razan Al-Najjar: a white coat stained with blood

The statistics are horrendous but one of the most alarming aspects of the injuries sustained has been the nature of the wounds, and the damage inflicted by the type of bullets being used by the Israelis. It is this question which Alistair Burt seems to have avoided.

He was asked directly about the ammunition because there are genuine fears that at least some of the live rounds fired by Israeli snipers are illegal under international law; dumdum bullets are designed to inflict maximum internal damage before exiting the body leaving a “gaping hole” behind. Their use would constitute a war crime. It should be noted, of course, that shooting unarmed civilians who pose no direct threat to anyone, least of all the soldiers, is also a war crime and possible crime against humanity, regardless of the type of bullets used.


“Your letter raises speculation that protestors have been shot with expanding bullets; we are not aware of any credible information that such ammunition is being used,” wrote the minister. “We continue to support an independent and transparent investigation into recent events in Gaza – what happened to Razan al Najjar [sic] underlines the importance of this.”

Had Burt or any of his underlings thought to pick up the phone and speak to the doctors at Al-Shifa Hospital they would have discovered that there is very “credible information” indeed about the type of munitions being used by Israel. The medical staff on the front line can only conclude, through the wounds that they have to deal with, that high velocity munitions used to hit targets at long distances have been used on the Palestinians at relatively close range. As for evidence of this, that can be found on too many broken Palestinian bodies.

Official: 137 Palestinians killed in Gaza’s Great Marches of Return

Even if the soldiers are not firing illegal bullets, those being used are clearly not intended to be used when suppressing civil unrest. Some doctors suspect that Israeli soldiers have been loading exploding bullets deliberately in order to maximise the damage done to their victims.

Interestingly enough, a tweet sent out on Twitter by the Israeli military, which has since disappeared from the social network, boasted that the Israel Defence Forces “could account for every bullet fired.” If that is so, why should Alistair Burt have any difficulty in finding out exactly what kind of bullets were fired by the IDF?

Now that he has a new boss — hopefully one who is keener on important details — maybe the minister will return to the question of the live rounds that Israel is using on the Palestinians. He could, at the same time, also ask what kind of “tear gas” is being used, because there are also concerns that this is not the type normally used in crowd control situations.

The symptoms facing doctors in Al-Shifa and Gaza’s other hospitals are unlike anything that they have come across before. Dr Abbas described them to a charity delegation recently as being consistent with the effects of a “toxic” gas and not the “ordinary” variety that they are used to dealing with.

New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt can either run the Foreign Office like his predecessor or he can make his mark and start to demand sensible answers to some serious questions when it comes to addressing Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. He can only do this effectively if he gets his Middle East Minister on board to make sure that Israel is fulfilling its legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and UN Resolutions.

Instead of metaphorically dodging the bullet, it is time for Alistair Burt to stand up to his responsibilities and fire off some pertinent questions to Tel Aviv. It’s not only the doctors at Al-Shifa Hospital and their colleagues across the Gaza Strip who need to know what they’re dealing with in order to save lives, but it’s also very much of interest to all individuals who believe in standing up for international law, human rights and the Geneva Conventions. It would be nice to think that Britain’s new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Hunt MP, will take the lead on this approach, for everyone’s sake, not just the people of Palestine.

Read: Palestinian teen succumbs to wounds sustained in Great March of Return

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.