IDF fights with Gazans over body of suspected bomb-planter

In graphic video footage, Israeli military bulldozer seen passing security fence, picking up corpse, as Palestinians pelt the vehicle with rocks

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

An Israeli military bulldozer enters the Gaza buffer zone to retrieve the body of a suspected terrorist on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture/Shehab news)
An Israeli military bulldozer enters the Gaza buffer zone to retrieve the body of a suspected terrorist on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture/Shehab news)

Israeli troops fought with a group of young Palestinian men on Sunday morning over which side would retrieve the bodies of a terrorist operative who was killed as he and another man were apparently planting a bomb along the Gaza security fence earlier in the day.

Last week, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was beginning to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists as “bargaining chips” in an effort to secure the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We are hoarding the corpses of terrorists in order to put pressure on the other side,” Bennett said in an interview on the 103FM radio station.

In graphic video footage shared on social media, an Israeli armored bulldozer could be seen passing the security fence from Israel and entering the buffer zone around the Gaza Strip, traveling toward the corpse of the man who was shot dead earlier Sunday morning.

Palestinian media initially reported that both men were killed by the Israeli gunfire, but later said that only one had died, while the other was critically wounded.

The Israel Defense Forces said they were planting an improvised explosive device along the border east of the city of Khan Younis. The military released surveillance camera footage showing the men placing an object next to the fence and said they were members of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell that had planted at least two other explosive devices along the border in recent months. The terror group’s military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, acknowledged that at least one of them was a member of the organization, identifying him as Muhammad al-Na’im, 27. The al-Quds Brigades did not specify if the second man was a member of the terror group.

In the video footage of the aftermath of the incident, a group of Palestinian men can be seen pelting a heavy engineering vehicle with stones as it approaches, before a gunshot is heard and several of the men begin hopping away. Palestinian media reported that four people in total were injured by the Israeli gunfire. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry confirmed that at least two men were shot by Israeli troops and sustained injuries to their legs.

As the Palestinian men disperse, the IDF bulldozer — guarded by a Merkava tank — can be seen lifting up one of the mangled bodies and carrying it back toward Israel.

Left-wing activist Yariv Oppenheimer harshly criticized the operation to retrieve the body, saying in a Facebook post that it was a “moral low point” for the IDF, which would not actually help in the effort to return the Israeli civilians and the remains of the IDF soldiers.

Bennett rejected the criticism, saying it was “hypocritical,” and that it would be inhumane to not hoard the bodies of terrorists, as “Hamas is holding the bodies of Hadar and Oron,” referring to the first names of the two soldiers’ whose remains are being held captive by Hamas. The defense minister did not mention the two living Israeli civilians who are also believed to be in Hamas captivity in Gaza.

The Hamas and PIJ terror groups denounced Israel for retrieving the body.

Islamic Jihad threatened that “the blood of martyrs will not be in vain.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the “maltreatment” of Na’im’s corpse was “another heinous crime that has been added to its record of awful crimes at the expense of our Palestinian people.”

The early morning incident came days after a clash in the same area, in which a sniper team from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group opened fire at a group of Israeli soldiers and police officers along the southern Gaza border, causing no injuries.

The Israeli troops — both IDF soldiers and officers from the police’s counter-terrorism unit — responded with artillery fire “to remove the threat” last Wednesday, the military said.

Then, too, the IDF said at the time it “identified a hit.”

The border clashes come amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to broker a ceasefire agreement with Palestinian terror groups in the Strip, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.

Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip began sending clusters of balloons and kites into Israel laden with explosives beginning in 2018. The practice has waxed and waned over that time, but has picked up considerably in recent weeks, with dozens of such balloon-borne bombs landing in towns and farming communities adjacent to the Palestinian enclave.

On February 5, the military restricted Gaza’s permitted fishing zone down to 10 nautical miles and canceled some 500 travel permits after weeks of regular rocket fire and the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel from Gaza.

Last Tuesday, Israel said it would to extend the fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and increase the number of travel permits from the Strip to 2,000, following three days of relative calm in the coastal enclave.

It said those eased restrictions would continue only if calm remains.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the military was planning a “big surprise” for Hamas if the terrorist group failed to rein in violence aimed at southern Israel, amid reports that Israel was contemplating the assassination of two senior Hamas leaders.

The prime minister said he would not subject any decision on Gaza to “political timetables,” with the March 2 election less than two weeks away, adding that he would “choose the right time to take action.”

Palestinian men prepare an incendiary device to be flown toward Israel, near the Israel-Gaza border, in the eastern part of the Gaza Strip, February 7, 2020. (Fadi Fahd/Flash90)

The London-based pan-Arab website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported last week that an Egyptian intelligence delegation that visited the Gaza Strip did so after receiving information that Israel was planning to assassinate two prominent Hamas figures.

The website said it had been told by sources that Cairo had persuaded Israel to suspend a decision to assassinate Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Marwan Issa, the leader of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

On Saturday night, Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman revealed that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, had visited Qatar earlier this month to plead with its leaders to continue their periodical payments to Hamas in order to help maintain calm in the restive Palestinian enclave.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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