Brigadier general tapped to probe army’s response to Gaza protests

IDF appoints training chief Moti Baruch to lead investigation of actions that led to some 30 Palestinian deaths, including a clearly identified journalist

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli snipers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces/File)
Illustrative: Israeli snipers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces/File)

The IDF General Staff on Sunday appointed a brigadier general to lead an inquiry into the military’s response to a series of violent protests along the Gaza border, which has so far resulted in the deaths of some 30 Palestinians.

The army conducted similar investigations of this level following the 2014 Gaza war and after a United Nations peacekeeper was accidentally shot dead in 2015 during a clash between Israeli troops and the Hezbollah terrorist group.

The probe will be led by Brig. Gen. Moti Baruch, a former division commander and current head of the army’s Training and Doctrine Division, the army said.

Brig. Gen. Moti Baruch, who was named as the army’s incoming commander of the General Staff Corps and head of the Command and Control School, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Thus far, 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during the Gaza border clashes over the past two weeks, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry.

The army will not necessarily investigate every death, but will more likely focus on a few particular cases where there appears to be cause for an inquiry — for instance, in the death of Palestinian photojournalist Yasser Murtaja, who was reportedly shot in the torso on Friday while wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “press.” Murtaja reportedly died from a gunshot wound he sustained while filming in an area engulfed in thick black smoke caused by protesters setting tires on fire.

His death sparked an international outcry. The army said that as a rule it does not target journalists and was looking into the incident.

“For weeks we have been warning against coming close to the fence and calling on Gaza’s residents not to obey the orders of the terror group Hamas and refrain from terror activities and other violent acts against Israel,” the IDF said. “Despite this, since last Friday the IDF has been dealing with tens of thousands of people approaching the fence, all instigated by Hamas.”

Videos from inside Gaza have also shown cases of what appeared to be some of the Palestinians being shot when they do not appear to pose a threat to either IDF soldiers or security infrastructure — two of the main conditions for a lethal response under the army’s stated rules of engagement.

Palestinian journalists carry a portrait of journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis has said that some of these videos may be fabricated, but acknowledged that it is possible that “mistakes may have been made.”

Baruch’s probe will run in parallel to internal investigations currently underway in the IDF Southern Command, the army said.

If the investigation finds wrongdoing it will pass the details to the Military Advocate General Corps and to the Military Police’s investigatory unit to consider pressing criminal charges.

Palestinian men wave their national flags as smoke billows from tires burned by Gazans at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The probe will focus on the army’s conduct over the past two weeks, which have seen daily clashes along the Gaza border, including two massive demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Palestinians took part.

The protests were part of a planned six-week “March of Return” that is due to end in mid-May with both “Nakba Day,” marking the displacement of Arabs after Israel’s creation, and the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a plan that has infuriated Palestinian leaders.

Palestinian protesters burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza-Israel border, east of Gaza City on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Palestinian activists have insisted the protests were civilian-led and nonviolent, while Israel has said they were often used as cover for attempts at violence against Israeli troops and breaches of the border. The IDF says the marches are a new tactic by Hamas, which rules Gaza, to conduct terror operations in the confusion of the demonstrations.

The army noted that it has spotted multiple attempts by terrorists to plant explosive devices along the Gaza border, a shooting attack on IDF troops by two well-armed Palestinian men dispatched by Hamas, as well as an attempted infiltration by a gunman wearing a suicide bomb vest. Hamas has acknowledged several of its operatives were among the Palestinian dead.

On Friday, nine Palestinians, including Murtaja, were killed by Israeli gunfire and over 1,000 people were injured from tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israel has no official casualty figures.

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