In Gaza protests, IDF troops aim for the legs

Policy of shooting at lower body of rioters is leaving a mark on the Strip, with many young men walking on crutches and health services struggling to cope

In this combination of 10 photos taken on September 19, 2018, Palestinians shot in the legs during demonstrations and riots at the Gaza strip's border with Israel await treatment at a Gaza City clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders). (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
In this combination of 10 photos taken on September 19, 2018, Palestinians shot in the legs during demonstrations and riots at the Gaza strip's border with Israel await treatment at a Gaza City clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders). (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Israeli forces deployed along the volatile border with the Gaza Strip have fired live rounds at rock-throwing Palestinian rioters and protesters ever since mass demonstrations against Israel’s long-running blockade of Gaza and for a “right of return” into Israel began in March.

And for eight months, snipers have targeted one part of the body more than any other — the legs.

The protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return” and orchestrated by the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza and openly seeks the Jewish state’s destruction, have primarily entailed the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks, bombings and attempted border breaches as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and kites that have burned large swaths of land in Israel.

The military says it opens fire only as a last resort, and considers firing at the lower limbs an act of restraint.

Still, 175 Palestinians have been shot to death, according to an Associated Press count, and thousands have been wounded. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. A Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier in July.

A Palestinian hurls a stone towards Israeli forces during clashes along the border with the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on November 30, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Of the 10,511 protesters treated at hospitals and field clinics in Gaza so far, at least 6,392, or roughly 60 percent, have been struck in the lower limbs, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. At least 5,884 of those casualties were hit by live ammunition; others have been hit by rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas canisters.

The upsurge in violence has left a visible mark on Gaza that will likely remain for decades to come. It is now common to see young men walking through dilapidated streets on crutches. Most have legs bandaged or fitted with a metal frame called a fixator, which uses pins or screws that are inserted into fractured bones to help stabilize them.

The wounded can often be seen gathering at a treatment clinic run by the Paris-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders in Gaza City, where Associated Press photographer Felipe Dana took portraits of some of them.

Some of those he photographed acknowledged throwing stones toward Israeli troops during the demonstrations. One said he had hurled a firebomb. But others claimed they were unarmed bystanders; one paramedic said he was helping rescue the wounded, while another man said he was waving a Palestinian flag and another said he was selling coffee and tea.

In this September 10, 2018, photo, patients with leg injuries they sustained during demonstrations gather outside a clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

International human rights groups have said the military’s open-fire rules are unlawful because they allow the use of potentially lethal force in situations where soldiers’ lives are not in immediate danger.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, rejected international criticism that Israel’s response has been excessive.

“Sniper rifles against hundreds or thousands of rioters that are violently trying to get into Israel with the open aim of killing Israeli civilians or abducting Israeli soldiers, I don’t think that’s disproportionate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s disproportionate to shoot at feet or legs to get them to stop, rather than killing them.”

Doctors Without Borders said this month that the huge number of patients was overwhelming Gaza’s health care system, which has already been severely weakened by a blockade — imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007, after Hamas took over the coastal enclave in a military coup — that has fueled economic stagnation and rampant unemployment, and devastated water and electricity supplies.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to isolate Hamas, which has launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities, and to keep the terror group from obtaining weapons or material that could be used to make weapons. Critics say it amounts to collective punishment of the two million residents.

In this September 19, 2018, photo, Mohanad al-Khawas, 20, poses as he awaits treatment at a clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The Paris-based aid group said the majority of the 3,117 patients it has treated have been shot in the legs, and many will need followup surgery, physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

“These are complex and serious injuries that do not quickly heal,” the group said. “Their severity and the lack of appropriate treatment in Gaza’s crippled health system means that infection is a high risk, especially for patients with open fractures.”

“The consequences of these wounds … will be lifelong disability for many,” the aid group said. “And if infections are not tackled, then the results could be amputation or even death.”

The Hamas-run health ministry says it has carried out 94 amputations since the protests began, 82 of them involving lower limbs.

The border protests have been backed by Hamas, which has fought three wars against Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007. Rioters have tried to breach the border fence, clashed with Israeli troops, opened fire in several cases, and planted explosive devices at the border.

Protesters are calling for the descendants of Palestinian refugees to be able to “return” to their families’ former homes, now inside Israel, as well as a lifting of the Egyptian and Israeli blockade of the coastal enclave. Israel rejects the demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians as an effort to destroy the Jewish state via weight of numbers.

Israel says Hamas has been seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out infiltrations and attacks, and that its actions are necessary to defend the border.

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