The Israeli military on Wednesday said its soldiers did not know at the time that three Palestinians targeted in an airstrike while behaving suspiciously near the Gaza border earlier this week were minors.
The Israel Defense Forces said the teenagers — aged 13 to 15 — were seen sabotaging the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave on Sunday night and digging in the ground in a manner that resembled cases when explosive devices are planted along the border.
According to the military, warning shots were fired at the suspects, but they were ignored. Ultimately, an IDF aircraft shot at them. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said their bodies were found several hours later.
“IDF troops spotted a squad of three suspects approaching the border under the cover of darkness, in a crouched and suspicious manner. They crossed the barbed wire fence, moved through the heightened-security perimeter zone and approached the border fence, carrying a bag. They were observed sabotaging the fence and digging in the ground next to it,” the army said.
“The three operated in a way that was identical to previous incidents in which terror operatives had placed explosive devices in the same location over the past months,” the military said. “To clarify, the observation forces did not positively identify that they were minors.”
The families of the teenagers have maintained that their children were not involved in terrorist activities. Their deaths drew swift condemnation from Palestinian groups, as well as reproach from the United Nations, which also appeared to chastise terrorist organizations for putting children in harm’s way.
The Israeli military indicated that the teenagers may have been sent to the fence by a terror group in the Strip, but refrained from explicitly making the allegation.
“It should be noted that the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip continuously exploit minors in a cynical manner and jeopardize their safety,” the army said.
Hundreds of Palestinians on Monday laid the three teenagers to rest.
The boys’ bodies were wrapped in Palestinian flags and carried by mourners who shot in the air as they chanted “God is great.”
Their deaths threatened to plunge the area into further violence after a brief exchange of fire over the weekend. The heaviest rocket salvos from the Hamas-ruled territory in months prompted attacks on 90 targets in Gaza by the Israeli military.
Aisha Abu Daher said her 13-year-old son Abdel-Hamid had “nothing to do with resistance,” referring to Gaza’s terrorist groups. Abdel-Hamid and his friends drank tea in the afternoon and rode a donkey cart, a daily habit, and did not come home, she said.
“I went to a wedding, and in the evening I worried when he did not return,” she told the Associated Press over the phone from her home in the central Gaza Strip, about 1 kilometer (a half mile) away from the border area. “I don’t know why they went or what they were doing there, but I’m sure they were not doing anything bad.”
The three boys all lived in Wadi al-Salaqa, a farming village in central Gaza near the Israeli border.
Residents said Abu Daher had dropped out of school and hoped to become a car mechanic. His friend, 15-year-old Mohammed al-Satari, fixed bikes for neighborhood children to earn money to feed pigeons he raised on the roof of his family’s home. Khaled Abu Isied, 14, used to collect grass and other feed for livestock his family kept in their backyard.
Residents said children often go to the border area to plant traps used to catch birds, to forage for food for livestock or tend to crops.
“It’s normal for them to go there, and that’s why we did not expect them to be martyred,” said Salwa Abu Isied, Khaled’s mother. She said she had no idea that anything was wrong until she received a phone call from the hospital that her son had been killed.
Medics said they recovered the bodies 200 meters (some 218 yards) from the border, which has been volatile for months as the Islamist terror group Hamas has led protests there demanding an end to a decade-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza.
Israel accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover to stage border infiltrations and attacks. It says it is defending its border and accuses Hamas of exploiting young protesters.
“They were there late, and that’s why an aircraft hit them,” said Fatma Abu Isied, Khaled’s aunt. “Is this something that deserves an airstrike?”
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch director in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said the killing of the boys appeared to be a violation of human rights law.
“Army or states can use lethal force only when there is an imminent threat to lives,” he said. Entering a restricted area along the border, or even planting explosives there, “doesn’t mean someone’s life is at imminent threat,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “deplores” the deaths of the three Palestinian children, a spokesman said.
“The targeting of children or exposing them to risk leading to violence is utterly unacceptable,” Stephane Dujarric said. The secretary-general “appeals to all to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties, in particular any measures that could place children in harm’s way.”
Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets Sunday night, burning tires and demanding Gaza militants fire rockets into Israel in retaliation. The sit-ins went on through dawn Monday.
Thousands gathered Monday on the beach for a Hamas-led protest against the blockade. Several threw rocks and firebombs at the fence near the beach in northwestern Gaza. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said a 27-year-old Palestinian was shot dead during the protest.
Egyptian mediators have been working to restore calm, and hope to bring about national reconciliation between Hamas, which seized Gaza by force in 2007, and the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas says the blockade must be lifted first and has vowed to continue the weekly protests, in which more than 160 Palestinians have been killed since March. The terror group has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. A Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier in July.
The protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks, bombings and attempted border breaches as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
Israel says it maintains the blockade to prevent Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, from importing weaponry.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.