IDF: Israeli aircraft targets armed Palestinian approaching Gaza fence
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IDF: Israeli aircraft targets armed Palestinian approaching Gaza fence

Hamas-run health ministry says man dies of injuries; incident comes day before Palestinians are due to again demonstrate along the border

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

Israeli soldiers watch Palestinian protesters following a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on March 31, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Israeli soldiers watch Palestinian protesters following a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on March 31, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

An Israeli aircraft targeted an armed Palestinian approaching the Gaza security fence early Thursday morning, the army said, as border tensions persisted after at least 18 Palestinians were reported killed in clashes over the past week.

The Israel Defense Forces said the man was inside the northern Gaza Strip, but was getting close to the border when its aircraft fired at him.

“The IDF will not allow any harm to the security of Israeli civilians and will continue to operate against terrorists who are involved in acts of terror,” the army said in a statement.

Night-vision footage later released by the IDF showed the man holding what appears to be an assault rifle. The army said he was also armed with hand grenades and a suicide belt. These are not visible in the footage.

The Hamas-run health  ministry in Gaza later pronounced the Palestinian man dead in Gaza’s Shifa hospital. He was identified as 23-year-old Mujahid al-Khudari.

The incident came as Palestinians prepared to again demonstrate along the Gaza security fence on Friday.

Ahead of the protests, Palestinians amassed tires that they planned to burn, which would create a smokescreen, shielding protesters — and, the IDF said it fears, terrorists — from the view of army snipers.

A Palestinian youth collects money and tires in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 4, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Palestinians also collected mirrors, which they hoped to use to blind and confuse the sharpshooters.

Bulldozers and other heavy machines were used inside Gaza to build up berms for Palestinians to hide behind during the riots.

On Thursday, Israeli officials tried a new tack to prevent the protests planned for Friday: an impassioned environmental plea.

“This is a serious environmental issue that will harm the health of the residents and will cause unprecedented air pollution,” wrote Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, in a letter to the World Health Organization.

“I call upon you, as the head of an international organization whose goal is to promote health and protect natural and environmental resources, to do everything in your power to publicly warn against this ecological catastrophe and to protest Hamas’ irresponsible behavior,” he added, referring to the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip and has been leading the protests.

On Friday, over 30,000 Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza border, in what Israel describes as a riot orchestrated by the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza, and what Palestinians say was supposed to be a peaceful protest.

Palestinian protestors run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces during clashes following a demonstration commemorating Land Day, near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

There were discrepancies in Palestinian reports on the Gaza death toll from Friday. While Hamas claimed Monday that 18 had died, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority had the number at 16. Israel has no official death toll figures. Over 1,000 were reported injured.

The IDF on Saturday named and detailed 10 of the dead as members of terror groups including Hamas. Hamas, an Islamist terror group that avowedly seeks to destroy Israel, had earlier acknowledged five of them were its members. Islamic Jihad later claimed an 11th.

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence. Manelis said on Friday evening that the army had faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. He said the IDF used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence.

On Tuesday,  another Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli forces as he broke through the Gaza security fence.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry identified the dead man as 25-year-old Ahmed Arafa, saying he was shot in the chest during clashes east of Bureij in central Gaza. The military wing of the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) terrorist group identified him as a member.

IDF footage showing a group of five Palestinian men damage and break through the Gaza security fence, before one of them is shot dead, during a protest in Bureij, in the central Gaza Strip, on April 3, 2018. (Screen capture)

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that it used live fire against a group of Palestinians who broke through the security fence during the protest.

Surveillance camera footage, provided by the army, showed one person smashing the fence with what appears to be a metal pipe. He is joined by four others, two of whom go through a hole in the fence. Then it appears warning shots were fired.

The two men run back into Gaza, and once they are through the fence the video cuts out. It was unclear when Arafa was shot.

Violent protests have been staged every day since Friday’s mass demonstration, though on a far smaller level, usually involving a few dozen people. Nevertheless, the army has remained on high alert in the area out of concerns that terror groups could capitalize on the tensions and carry out attacks.

The army said it used mostly less-lethal riot dispersal measures against the demonstrators — tear gas and rubber bullets — but used live rounds against those who sabotage the fence or otherwise presented a direct threat.

On Wednesday, the left-wing B’Tselem organization called on IDF soldiers to disobey orders and refuse to use their weapons against unarmed protesters during the demonstrations planned for Friday.

Israeli soldiers take aim as they lie on an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on March 30, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

B’Tselem claims that shooting unarmed protesters constitutes a “manifestly illegal” order — an illicit command that poses a direct threat to life — one that Israeli troops are required to disobey. This is, generally speaking, factually accurate and accords with the army’s rules of engagement. The difference — and a major one at that — is in how B’Tselem and the Israel Defense Forces respectively define “unarmed protesters.”

A spokesperson for B’Tselem clarified that the group is referring to anyone not carrying a firearm or explosive device.  This is not the view of the IDF, along with many international legal sources, which maintains that things like firebombs and rocks do present a credible threat and therefore warrant the use of live fire.

Asked about B’Tselem’s campaign during an Army Radio interview on Wednesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman referred to the group as a “fifth column, sell-swords who harm the nation with funding from abroad.”

Liberman called it a “seditious campaign” and said that he’d spoken to legal advisers in the Defense Ministry about taking action against the group.

Following last Friday’s protests, Israeli officials said they were not fundamentally changing the army’s rules of engagement ahead of the expected demonstrations on Friday.

We have set clear rules of the game and we do not intend to change them. Anyone who approaches the fence risks his life

On Tuesday, the Walla news site reported that the army’s rules of engagement for soldiers would allow the use of live fire against someone with a weapon who gets within approximately 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the security fence. An unarmed person would be allowed within 100 meters (330 feet) of the border before soldiers opened fire.

Beyond that clarification, senior officials said the protocol would be the same as last week.

“We have set clear rules of the game and we do not intend to change them. Anyone who approaches the fence risks his life, and I would recommend that Gaza residents put their efforts not into protesting against Israel, but into regime change within the Strip,” Liberman said during a tour of Israeli communities just outside the coastal enclave.

The defense minister also defended the IDF’s use of live fire last week.

“It needs to be understood that the majority of the people killed were terrorists whom we know well, operatives in the military arm of Hamas, as well as in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. These weren’t innocent civilians who came as part of a civil protest,” he said.

On Monday, IDF Spokesperson Manelis similarly defended the army’s actions, blaming all the violence on Hamas. He too said the army would not be changing its policies.

“We will use the same forces and the same capabilities,” he said.

The United States on Saturday blocked a draft UN Security Council statement urging restraint and calling for an investigation of clashes on the Gaza-Israel border, diplomats said.

The draft council statement also expressed “grave concern at the situation at the border.” And it reaffirmed “the right to peaceful protest” and expressed the council’s “sorrow at the loss of innocent Palestinian lives.”

AFP, Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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