Nikki Haley. Picture: REUTERS
Nikki Haley. Picture: REUTERS

US ambassador to the US Nikki Haley has lashed out at Hamas, accusing the Palestinian movement of "using children as cannon fodder", following the deaths of dozens of people during protests in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces have killed 41 Palestinians, including two journalists, since the protests began on March 30 near the Gaza-Israeli border fence.

"Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel," Haley told a UN Security Council meeting.

Most of the Palestinians killed by Israel during the continuing protests were shot by snipers on the border, while a few others were killed by Israeli artillery or air strikes.

The Israeli army says its troops only open fire in self-defence or to stop protesters attempting to breach the barrier separating the territory from Israel.

Haley denounced the use of civilians as human shields throughout the Middle East in her remarks to the council as it met to discuss the situation in the region and the violence in Gaza.

"It’s difficult to think of a more cowardly act — even for a terrorist — than hiding behind innocent civilians," she said.

The UN has called for an independent investigation of the violence in Gaza, where Israel has fought three wars since 2008.

Addressing the council, UN envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov urged Israel to "minimise the use of live fire" and stressed that "lethal force should be used only as a last resort". Hamas and the protest leaders must, in turn, keep away from the fence and children should be particularly protected, he added.

At least four children have been shot dead by Israeli live fire, Mladenov said.

"Gaza is coming apart as we speak under the pressure of an explosive combination of negative humanitarian, security and political factors," he said.

The US has twice blocked draft statements from the council expressing concern about the violence in Gaza.