Defense minister seeks probe into B’tselem for urging soldiers to refuse orders

Avigdor Liberman says NGO incites disobedience by calling on troops not to fire on Gaza protesters; IDF believes firebombs and rock-throwing justify use of lethal force

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday he had asked the attorney general to investigate the leaders of a left-wing group that called on Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to open fire at Palestinian protesters during clashes on the border with the Gaza Strip.

The organization, B’Tselem, lashed out in response, saying Liberman himself was guilty of incitement by demanding that soldiers carry out a manifestly illegal order.

In a tweet Sunday, Liberman said he had asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to “probe the heads of B’Tselem for incitement to disobedience after their call for soldiers to refuse orders in defending the border.”

He was referring to advertisements that B’Tselem took out in Hebrew-language newspapers Thursday in which the group urged Israel Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to fire their weapons at unarmed protesters during demonstrations planned by the Palestinian terror group Hamas at the Gaza border for the next day.

“This subversive and marginal organization, together with haters of Israel and the international media, are trying to delegitimize our soldiers, whose behavior is both legal and moral in an extremely complex situation,” Liberman continued. “We will put an end to this.”

An injured Palestinian protester is carried by fellow demonstrators during clashes with Israeli security forces near the border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

In response to Liberman’s comments, B’Tselem issued a statement reiterating its call for soldiers to refuse what it called “manifestly illegal orders” to use lethal force against demonstrators who didn’t pose a threat to lives. The group slammed the minister for a Sunday radio interview in which he said all of the protesters were being “paid by Hamas” and acting on behalf of the terror group.

“Liberman’s dangerous comments this morning, as though ‘there were no civilians there’ and that all those taking part in the demonstrations in Gaza are Hamas members whom it is legitimate to shoot and kill, demonstrates a deep contempt for basic moral principles,” B’Tselem said.

The organization noted that Article 110 of Israel’s penal code, which it said Liberman was relying on, only outlaws urging soldiers to refuse a legal order — while shooting at unarmed Gazans, the group said, was a manifestly illegal order.

“Therefore, the minister’s request is baseless. The defense minister is the one inciting to break the law, and it is good that the attorney general has an opportunity to make that clear.”

Last week, B’Tselem said it was aiming to inform soldiers that they are legally obligated to refuse orders to shoot unarmed Palestinian protesters, saying such orders are “manifestly illegal.”

Israeli military law requires soldiers to disobey “manifestly illegal” commands, meaning illegal orders that could result in loss of life. In the case of illegal orders that do not threaten a life, soldiers are required to carry them out and then report them to higher echelons in the military.

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

“B’Tselem warned of the expected outcome of this policy and now, ahead of the expected demonstrations this Friday, it is again clarifying that shooting unarmed demonstrators is illegal and that orders to shoot in this manner are manifestly illegal,” the group wrote in its Hebrew advertisements.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border on Friday, burning tires and throwing firebombs and rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas and live fire, the army and witnesses said, as Palestinians held a second “March of Return” protest. Nine Gazans were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the day’s clashes.

The IDF said it thwarted multiple efforts to breach the border fence — and that it used live fire to do so in some instances — as well as attempts to activate bombs against the troops under the cover of smoke from the protests.

Beyond the public rhetoric between B’Tselem and some politicians, there is a substantive disagreement between the army and several left-wing groups who have criticized the Palestinian deaths during the border clashes.

A spokesperson for B’Tselem has explained that the group considers anyone not carrying a firearm or explosive device to be “unarmed,” even if they are throwing firebombs or rocks over the border fence, since these are less likely to cause lethal harm to soldiers on the Israeli side.

The IDF, in keeping with many international legal sources, maintains that firebombs and rocks pose a sufficient and credible threat to soldiers to warrant the use of live fire.

The army also maintains that attempts to sabotage and break through the security fence separating Gaza and Israeli usually justify the use of gunfire as such actions could lead to a mass infiltration of Israeli territory, including by terror groups, something the IDF is required to prevent.

Palestinians march past a tent city toward the border with Israel east of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Friday’s demonstration was the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.

Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and said it will prevent a breach of the fence at all costs.

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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