In first, soldier convicted over killing of Gaza rioter, gets 1-month sentence

In first, soldier convicted over killing of Gaza rioter, gets 1-month sentence

Serviceman agrees to plea deal, admits to opening fire without the required approval at a Palestinian teenager scaling the security fence during border protests

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

Palestinian teenager Othman Helles climbs the Gaza security fence moments before he is shot by an IDF soldier during a riot along the Strip's border on July 13, 2018. (Screen capture)
Palestinian teenager Othman Helles climbs the Gaza security fence moments before he is shot by an IDF soldier during a riot along the Strip's border on July 13, 2018. (Screen capture)

A military court on Monday made its first conviction in connection with a series of weekly riots and protests held along the Gaza border beginning last year, finding a soldier guilty of disobeying an order leading to the death of a Palestinian teenager.

The conviction was handed down as part of a plea deal in which the combat soldier pleaded guilty to “disobeying an order leading to a threat to life or health,” the military said on Tuesday.

He was sentenced to one month in prison — to be served through military-related labor — as well as probation and a demotion in rank to private.

This was the first conviction of an Israel Defense Forces soldier over the death of a Palestinian rioter during the so-called March of Return protests.

On July 13, 2018, the soldier, whose name is barred from publication, opened fire at a Palestinian teenager — identified by Gazan officials as Othman Helles, 15 — as he was climbing the Gaza security fence during a riot, the army said.

The serviceman did so “without receiving the required permission from his commanders, not in accordance with the rules of engagement and not in accordance with the instructions he had received prior,” the military said.

Footage of the July 13 incident appears to show Helles climbing the Gaza border fence before being shot.

In August 2018, Military Advocate General Sharon Afek ordered a probe opened into the shooting of Helles and into the March 30 shooting of another Palestinian teenager, Abdel Fattah Abdel Nabi, 18, “in light of the suspicion that the shootings were not in accordance with the rules of engagement,” the IDF said in a statement at the time.

The soldier was not convicted of a more serious offense like manslaughter as military prosecutors were unable to collect sufficient evidence connecting his gunshot to Helles’ death.

File: IDF soldiers monitor the Gaza security fence during violent protests along the border on May 14, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

At the time, the IDF released a statement saying the 15-year-old had attempted to infiltrate into Israel, though Palestinians have disputed this.

The “March of Return” protests began on March 30, 2018. The border demonstrations mostly took place on Friday afternoons and on holidays, with between several hundred to tens of thousands of people taking part.

The demonstrations began as a grassroots initiative, but they were quickly co-opted by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and other terrorist organizations in the coastal enclave. Hamas, an Islamist terror group, seeks to destroy Israel.

These protests often included deadly clashes with Israeli security forces in which facing Palestinian gunfire, grenades, homemade pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were directed toward IDF troops.

Israel has faced significant international scrutiny and criticism for its use of live fire against largely unarmed rioters.

Palestinian demonstrators carry tires to burn during a rally along the border between Israel and the Gaza strip, east of Gaza City, on August 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The IDF has defended itself from this condemnation, saying it maintains strict rules of engagement for soldiers that require the approval of senior commanders before a shot can be fired and that it performs investigations into every bullet fired.

“We have not — I’m not saying not yet, I’m saying not — found even one incident of a soldier [just] deciding to shoot into the crowd, even on tough days,” the head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said in an international law conference earlier this year.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more injured by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says. The Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups have acknowledged that dozens of those killed were their members.

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