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Soldiers didn't fire at rioters, to avoid hitting civilians

IDF probe of Gaza shooting finds troops hampered by blind spots, poor planning

Military still investigating how rioter snuck pistol to area where army sniper was stationed and why hospital trip took nearly an hour; Hamas blamed for failing to restrain masses

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

Initial findings from the military’s investigation into the violence along the Gaza border on Saturday indicated that the troops were unprepared for the sudden rush of rioters toward the security fence, during which a Border Police officer was shot and seriously injured and a soldier’s gun was nearly stolen.

The soldiers stationed on the border did not immediately open fire at the masses that suddenly attacked the fence, out of concern that they might hit the civilians that were in the area, a military official said.

The Israel Defense Forces has yet to complete a full probe of Saturday’s events, and is looking into all aspects of the day, from how troops were deployed along the border to the exact lead-up to the shooting, and how the forces responded to it, she said, adding that the military saw the incident as a grave violation of Israeli sovereignty.

Though the IDF prepared for Saturday’s border protest — deploying additional troops to the security fence — it had incorrectly predicted that the demonstration would be far less violent, in light of Hamas’s public statements to that effect ahead of time.

According to the IDF, members of Hamas’s so-called restraining force were present during the protest, keeping back demonstrators who got too close to the border.

At a certain point on Saturday, however, dozens of rioters rushed directly up to the security barrier near the unused Karni crossing, to a section of concrete wall behind which Border Police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli, 21, was stationed as a sniper.

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli who was critically wounded in a shooting on the Gaza border on August 21, 2021 (Border Police)

The section of concrete wall where the attack happened was specifically built following a series of regular riots along the Gaza border in 2018. However, it only works as a proper defensive position when rioters are a good distance away, as snipers can fire at potential threats through the small opening, while being protected from enemy sniper fire and other attacks.

If rioters get close to the wall, however, the Israeli soldiers on the other side effectively lose all visibility and are left open to attack, as appears to have occurred on Saturday, according to the military’s initial findings.

In videos from the scene, rioters could be seen attempting to destroy and then snatch a soldier’s gun as it poked through a hole in the concrete wall. One man could then be seen running up to the wall, taking out a gun that had been tucked in his waistband and firing three shots through the hole at point-blank range. One of the rounds struck Shmueli in the head, critically injuring him.

Some Hebrew media outlets, citing unspecified Gazan sources, reported that the gunman was a member of Hamas’s restraining force who went rogue and later handed himself over to the terror group. This could not be verified.

The military official said it could not yet confirm the man’s identity, but anyway holds Hamas responsible for the event, as it failed to hold back the throngs of rioters who rushed the border, including the gunman, despite displaying such capabilities in the past.

According to the official, the rioters ran up to the border so quickly that Shmueli and the other soldiers with him apparently did not know how close they were until they reached the wall itself, despite the ample reconnaissance equipment on the border, including drones and powerful surveillance cameras.

The military does not yet know why the soldiers on the border were not informed in time about the approaching rioters or what action should have been taken to stop them.

Palestinian protesters burn tires amid clashes with Israeli security forces following a demonstration by the border fence with Israel, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The military was also investigating the way the border guard was taken to the hospital, a process that took 51 minutes from the shooting. Shmueli was taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in an ambulance, not a helicopter, as this was deemed the faster option, according to the official.

Shmueli remained in life-threatening condition as of Sunday evening, due to the complexity of his head injury, his doctors said.

In response to the shooting, as well as the general violence on the border, the Israeli Air Force struck four Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip late Saturday.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that Israel would retaliate against anyone who attacks Israelis. “We will settle the score with anyone who harms our fighters and civilians,” Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

Also on Sunday, Palestinian terror factions in Gaza said in a statement that they would not stop the border riots against Israel.

“We will continue activities without hesitation or retreat until Israel stops harming Jerusalem and our people in the West Bank, and until the siege on the Gaza Strip is lifted,” they said in a statement at a press conference. “Israel must take legal and humanitarian responsibility.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The terror groups additionally condemned Israel’s strikes on Hamas targets overnight, calling them “an attack on defenseless civilians.” No Palestinian civilians or combatants were reported injured in the strikes.

Shmueli’s father criticized the military on Sunday for the “error” that allowed rioters to get so close to the fence and open fire on him.

“I ask only that he lives, no more than that,” his father Yossi said. “Let all the people of Israel pray for his recovery.”

Saturday’s riot took place despite an agreement reached two days prior that would return millions in Qatari subsidies to the Gaza Strip via the United Nations. The agreement was seen as a significant breakthrough in attempts to strengthen the fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Tensions have risen between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks, as negotiations to strengthen the ceasefire appeared to hit a brick wall. On Monday, two rockets were fired at southern Israel for the first time since the May escalation, allegedly by Islamic Jihad.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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