IDF clears officers of wrongdoing in killing of border guard on Gaza fence

Investigation blames decision to position troops directly against the security wall on ‘a professional error in retrospect,’ says rioters were not expected to be armed

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

Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a Border Police officer who was shot dead by a Gaza gunman at the border in August 2021 (Courtesy)
Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a Border Police officer who was shot dead by a Gaza gunman at the border in August 2021 (Courtesy)

The Israel Defense Forces probe into the killing of a Border Police sniper during a Gaza border riot earlier this year, the results of which were released on Monday, cleared the commanders involved of wrongdoing and blamed the outcome on a “professional error,” not negligence.

On August 21, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip held a large demonstration along the Gaza border, near the defunct Karni Crossing. At one point during the demonstration, dozens of rioters suddenly rushed the border barrier, running up to a hole in the concrete wall that was being used by Israeli snipers as a firing position. One man, armed with a pistol, approached the hole in the wall, stuck the gun through it and fired three times. One of the shots struck border guard Barel Hadaria Shmueli in the head, critically wounding him. He died of his injury on August 30.

The findings of the investigation were shared with Shmueli’s family on Monday. His death, and accusations that the army had an overly restrictive open-fire policy that prevented troops from keeping the rioters away — a claim the IDF staunchly denies — prompted harsh condemnations of the military and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett by Shmueli’s family and right-wing lawmakers.

The probe found a number of “errors” in how the military responded to the riot, but cleared the officers involved — even praising their actions — and again disputed the claim that overly restrictive open-fire regulations were at fault.

Shmueli’s family criticized the investigation’s findings.

“Barel is gone and the commander of the Northern [Gaza] Brigade (Col. Yoav Bruner), the person who was responsible for the area, received a promotion after this event and now, in the internal military investigation, gets a citation,” the family said in a statement, referring to Bruner’s transfer to serve as commander of the Paratroopers Brigade in October.

The investigation found that the critical mistake leading to Shmueli’s death was Bruner’s decision to keep troops in their position along the border wall, officially dubbed the “Wall of Courage,” instead of moving them back, where they would have been less exposed and better able to keep the protesters at bay.

“The decision to move and set up along the border according to plan, based on past experience and intelligence information, when the rioters were right next to it and its disadvantages outweighed its advantages, was a professional error in retrospect. The use of live, deadly weapons by the rioters next to the ‘Wall of Courage’ was not expected,” according to the IDF’s summary of its investigation.

The probe similarly found the subsequent decision to keep troops along the wall after Shmueli was shot and after rioters twice attempted to steal soldiers’ guns was also “an error,” but not a mistake caused by willful carelessness.

The commanders involved in the operation were therefore not found to have acted negligently and will not face disciplinary action.

The commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, told reporters on Monday that the protocols for responding to riots have since been changed and troops will now be stationed farther back in safer shooting positions.

Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The probe, which was conducted by the IDF’s Southern Command, hailed the officers, saying they acted with “noteworthy coolness of spirit and self-control” and that the medical care that Shmueli received and his evacuation to the hospital after being shot were also praiseworthy.

As in the initial investigation in August, the full probe disputed the claims that the military’s rules of engagement were overly restrictive.

“The open-fire policies and rules of engagement allowed for freedom of action to hit the primary and incendiary rioters, and indeed significantly more shots were fired compared to during previous riots,” the probe found.

The gunman, a Hamas operative, was detained by the terror group, the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, shortly after the shooting, but was released a few weeks later.

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