'I wouldn't be surprised if there were 40 deaths'

IDF gears up for massive Friday protests in Gaza amid peak tensions

Senior officer warns that security situation is precarious, with great potential for ‘escalation and miscalculation,’ which he says could lead to war

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

IDF soldiers seen near tanks at an army base near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF soldiers seen near tanks at an army base near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

GAZA SECURITY FENCE — The Israeli military is preparing for massive riots along the Gaza security fence on Friday afternoon, potentially on par with violent clashes that took place on May 14, in which tens of thousands of people participated and some 60 Palestinians were killed, a senior army officer said Thursday.

The official said the military was working to limit the number of Palestinian deaths, but was prepared for a similar death toll as on May 14. The officer accused the Hamas terrorist group, which rules the Gaza Strip, of trying to create large numbers of casualties.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow there were 40 deaths, but I want there to be zero,” said the senior officer from the army’s Southern Command, on condition of anonymity.

“Hamas wants more dead. We want to get to zero people killed,” he said.

Palestinian protesters hold stones during a demonstration along the border with the Gaza strip east of Gaza city on June 1, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The military had initially anticipated that large protests would be held along the border on Tuesday to coincide with the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, which Palestinians refer to as the naksa, or setback.

Instead, Hamas directed Gazans to riot on Friday, the last Friday of Ramadan, which Iran also designates as Quds Day in support for the Palestinians.

On Thursday, the military dropped flyers across the Strip warning residents to stay away from the border and not take part in the riots.

Earlier this week, the Israel Defense Forces moved reinforcement infantry battalions to the Gaza Division ahead of the expected violence. In recent days, army crews also operated on both sides of the security fence to set up several kilometers worth of additional barbed wire barriers, the officer said.

“We’ve been ready since Tuesday,” he said.

The senior official said the military’s assessment that Friday stood to be particularly violent was based on a variety of factors, including social media activity, speeches given in Gaza mosques, preparations on the ground and internal Hamas communication.

The remains of a mortar shell that struck the yard of a kindergarten in the Eshkol region, near the Gaza border, on May 29, 2018. (Shay Machluf)

Tensions with the restive Gaza Strip reached a fever pitch last week, with a massive flare-up between terrorist organizations in the coastal enclave and Israel. Last Tuesday, Hamas, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a number of smaller groups launched approximately 200 mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel over the course of 22 hours. In response, the Israeli Air Force struck over 65 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip, including a Hamas attack tunnel.

The past week has also seen a number of rocket launches, the last one occurring early Sunday morning.

While the army believes Hamas is not interested in war, the senior officer said there is potential for a large-scale conflict in the near future.

“We’re at a junction right now. It can go one way or another,” he said.

According to the official, the two deciding factors are “escalation and miscalculation.”

An IDF tank is seen near the Gaza Strip on May 15, 2018. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

An attack along the border in which soldiers are killed, renewed rocket fire or other significant violence could push Israel into all-out conflict. On the other side of the border fence, a military strike that accidentally kills Palestinian civilians could push Hamas and the other terrorist groups in the Strip to war, he said.

‘People who are dead who we didn’t want to kill’

The military’s primary concern for Friday was a mass breach of the security fence and hundreds of Palestinian rioters ransacking one of the Israeli communities near the border.

The officer said the troops along the border were prepared to use less-lethal dispersal means and relatively small amounts of live fire in order to prevent an infiltration, with the understanding that should such a breach occur, the army would have to use far more lethal force in order to keep the rioters away from civilians.

A Palestinan protester cuts a section of barbed wire on the border fence with Israel, east of Jabalia in the central Gaza Strip on June 1, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Mohammed ABED)

If 500 people broke through the fence, “I would have to kill a lot of people in order to protect Nahal Oz,” the officer said, referring to a kibbutz near the border.

The IDF expects the riots to begin in the late afternoon or early evening when the daily Ramadan fast comes to an end. He noted that the demonstrations during Ramadan have tended to be shorter, ending at the same time, but beginning later in the day.

“We’d love to extend Ramadan by two-three months,” he quipped.

At least 120 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF since the start of the March of Return, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

Palestinians carry an injured man who was shot by Israeli troops during a deadly protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, on May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Of these, the senior IDF officer said, approximately 30 to 40 were active combatants that the military was deliberately trying to kill. The remaining two-thirds to three-quarters were people that the military was looking either to injure or was not intentionally targeting at all.

“There are a bunch of people who are dead who we didn’t want to kill,” he said.

However, the officer noted that the majority of these have later been found to be members of terrorist organizations, mostly Hamas.

“This is not a statistical anomaly,” he said, but proof that the violent activities along the border are directed by members of the terror group’s regional brigades.

Mourners carry the body of Mohammed Dwedar a 27 year-old Palestinian killed during clashes along the Gaza border the previous day, during his funeral in Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on May 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

The official said some of these deaths were the result of bullets ricocheting off rocks or off the security fence, as well as a small number of errors, with snipers missing their targets. In many cases, however, bullets hit one target and then keep going, sometime changing direction if they hit a bone, and strike another person.

“That’s how the paramedic was killed,” the officer said, referring to 21-year-old Razan Najjar, a volunteer medic who Palestinians say was shot dead during last week’s clashes while tending to wounded along the border.

The army’s investigation into her death was ongoing, but its initial findings indicated Najjar had not been deliberately targeted, based on a review of the shots fired in the area around the time of her death.

Razan al-Najjar (C-R), a 21-year-old Palestinian paramedic, tends to an injured colleague during clashes near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 15, 2018, (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

The senior officer said it appeared that a soldier may have fired at a different target and that the bullet continued on after hitting him, striking Najjar in the chest. He stressed that this was not a conclusive assessment.

Israel has faced significant international criticism for its actions along the border, including for the apparent killing of Najjar.

“The killing of a clearly identified medical staffer by security forces during a demonstration is particularly reprehensible,” Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Gaza, said Sunday.

Last Friday, an Arab-backed UN draft resolution calling for protective measures for the Palestinians won backing from 10 countries at the Security Council. The United States later vetoed it.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have acknowledged that dozens of the dead since March were their members, including 53 of the 60 fatalities on May 14, the worst day of the violence to date.

Preparing for the danger

The Southern Command official spoke to reporters in one of approximately 100 sniper nests that the military set up along the Gaza security fence — near where last week a group of Palestinians threw a fragmentation grenade across the border — as Gazans on the other side flew kites from the coastal enclave into Israeli territory, some of them bearing incendiary devices that started fires in nearby fields.

An IDF sniper nest across from the Gaza border, west of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel, on June 7, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The narrow strip of land separating the security fence from the line of IDF posts was littered with IDF bullet casings, marbles that had been launched at IDF troops with slingshots and the wreckage of “fire kites.” The officer said unexploded grenades, pipe bombs and improvised explosive devices were also regularly found in the area — and disarmed.

The army set up the positions so close to the border in order to give soldiers greater accuracy, as well as more leeway in the case of breaches, despite this putting the servicemen at an “insane” level of risk, the officer said, picking up marbles from the ground.

A ‘fire kite’ that crashed near an IDF sniper nest across from the Gaza border, west of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel, on June 7, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“One of these could kill you,” he said, holding up a cat’s eye marble.

“I am thankful I haven’t yet needed to explain why a soldier got killed,” he said. Thus far the only Israeli injury from the weekly Gaza border riots was a soldier who was lightly hurt by a rock on May 14.

Since March 30, Palestinians have held weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border, collectively known as the “March of Return,” with between a few thousand to tens of thousands of participants. Though initially billed as non-violent protests, the March was quickly coopted by the Hamas terrorist group, which openly seeks to destroy Israel.

The majority of people keep away from the border during the demonstrations, but between each week a few hundred to a few thousand approach the border and tear away the coils of barbed wire the army sets up each week, throw rocks or explosives at IDF troops and, in some cases, attempt to breach the fence. There have also been a number of direct, armed attacks on Israeli soldiers during the riots.

The IDF relies “on tear gas and tear gas” to drive back protesters in a less lethal way and uses live fire under its rules of engagement, the senior officer said.

A Palestinian protester holds a tear gas canister in his mouth during a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip on June 1, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

He said the army uses lethal force either in cases of direct threat to life or when there is sufficient risk that Palestinians might breach the security fence en masse, not necessarily for every infiltration.

“Four people don’t threaten me. But if it’s four people with thousands behind them, then we’ll shoot,” the senior officer said.

Under the army’s rules of engagement, soldiers are meant to shoot at rioters’ legs, but are permitted to fire at the torso in cases where there’s a direct threat to life, in a gun battle or if explosives are involved, the official said.

Asked if the people flying fire kites and balloons into Israel were considered legitimate targets for lethal force, the officer said there have been cases where shots were fired at them, but that in general the army does not see them as an immediate threat to life.

“It’s a different kind of danger,” he said, stressing that he was “not trying to downplay” the risk posed by the incendiary devices.

Beeri Crater following a fire sparked by kites, with Gaza in the background, June 6, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

To combat the threat posed by these airborne threats, the army has turned to drones, using both conscripted soldiers and hobbyists brought in from the reserves to intercept the kites and drones before they reach Israeli fields.

Over 500 kites and drones have been downed in this way, according to IDF figures, though the ones that made it through have wreaked tremendous damage in southern Israel.

So far, nearly 18,000 dunams of land are estimated to have been burned by these airborne incendiary devices, the majority of it in national parks and nature reserves, according to Israeli officials.

The cost of the damage is expected to exceed NIS 5 million ($1.4 million), according to the Tax Authority.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed