General defends use of live fire in Gaza, says less-lethal weapons ineffective

General defends use of live fire in Gaza, says less-lethal weapons ineffective

Herzi Halevi tells international legal experts that IDF investigates ‘every bullet’ shot during border riots, hasn’t found case of indiscriminate fire

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers gather at a position over an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on March 30, 2019, as Palestinians (background) protest to mark the first anniversary of the "March of Return" protests. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israeli soldiers gather at a position over an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on March 30, 2019, as Palestinians (background) protest to mark the first anniversary of the "March of Return" protests. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The head of the military’s Southern Command on Tuesday defended the army’s use of live fire in response to riots along the Gaza border over the past year, saying it had found no suitable less-lethal alternatives.

“If I had one wish, it would be for better non-lethal weapons,” Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said, speaking at an international law conference in Herzliya.

Since March 30, 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in regular protests along the border, which often turn violent, with rioters throwing rocks and explosives at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border and attempting to breach and damage the security fence. There have also been several cases of sniper attacks by Palestinians against Israeli troops along the border. In response, Israeli soldiers have used tear gas and, in some cases, live fire. At least 200 Palestinians have been killed during the riots.

Israel has faced significant international scrutiny and criticism for its use of live fire against largely unarmed rioters.

Halevi said the Israel Defense Forces maintains strict rules of engagement for soldiers, requiring approval of senior commanders before a shot can be fired, and performs investigations into every bullet fired.

Head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at an international law conference in Herzliya on May 28, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We don’t have results on every bullet because of the tough conditions [on the border],” he said, referring to the thick smoke, masses of people and general confusion.

“But we have not — I’m not saying not yet, I’m saying not — found even one incident of a soldier [just] deciding to shoot into the crowd, even on tough days,” Halevi said.

According to Halevi, the IDF has made use of the less-lethal weapons already at its disposal, contacted foreign countries to look into purchasing their equipment and attempted to develop new tools to respond to the riots.

These included rubber bullets, which were found to have an insufficient range; a foul-smelling spray known as the Skunk, which didn’t work well in the open fields along the border; and most recently a truck with a high-powered speaker to be used against rioters, which has not been found to be sufficiently effective.

The tear gas, which Israel continues to use along the border, is found to often be ineffective as the breeze coming from the Mediterranean blows it back into Israel.

An Israeli soldier fires a tear gas canister at rioters east of the Gaza city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Attempts to import an American-made system known as the Active Denial System, which uses microwaves to heat the skin of those in its path and forces them back, were blocked by the United States as the weapon was found to have not been sufficiently tested on human subjects.

According to Halevi, recent months have seen a decrease in the number of Palestinian injuries during the riots. He said that was because “Hamas decided to put its troops on the border. They took responsibility — it’s not just us.”

Indeed, Hamas officers in uniforms and in bright vests have been spotted during protests in recent weeks, keeping rioters away from the border.

Halevi made his remarks at the IDF’s third International Conference on the Law of Armed Conflict, which is being held this week.

The general discussed the challenges the IDF is facing along the Gaza border, both during the riots and in the exchanges of fire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, as terrorist operatives are often intermingled in groups of civilians, “like a fish in water.”

Halevi said this often results in Palestinian noncombatants being deliberately put in harm’s way.

The scene of a car hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip near the Israel-Gaza border on May 5, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

He gave an example from Israel’s most recent two-day bout with terror groups in the Strip earlier this month: a deadly anti-tank guided missile attack on an Israeli man’s car.

According to Halevi, the missile that hit Moshe Feder’s car and killed him was fired by Hamas “from an apartment in a multistory building.”

He said that had the IDF known in advance that the attack would come from the apartment building, it would have been well within its legal right to bomb the structure, despite the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Halevi also noted the ongoing threat posed by Palestinian groups launching balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. These have caused significant damage to Israeli property and territory, as well as a number of minor injuries. He said it is not clear how Israel ought to properly retaliate to those attacks.

“What is proportionality for this?” he asked.

Halevi offered the possibility of the IDF dropping its own incendiary devices into Gaza from C-130 Hercules transport planes in response to the arson attacks.

“But we decided not to do that,” he said. “We need an international voice to condemn [these attacks from Gaza].”

Halevi said his goal in speaking to the conference, with 80 representatives of militaries, universities and international organizations from 20 countries, was to get those present to “think about our challenges.”

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