Left-wing NGO calls on IDF soldiers to disobey orders during Gaza protests

B’Tselem launches campaign urging troops to refuse to fire at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators; defense minister says group is a ‘fifth column,’ calls to probe it for sedition

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

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The left-wing B’Tselem organization on Wednesday called on IDF soldiers to disobey orders and refuse to use their weapons against unarmed protesters during demonstrations planned by the Palestinians at the Gaza border for this Friday, following last week’s deadly clashes along the Gaza border during which at least 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.

The group said it was publishing notices in major Israeli newspapers telling soldiers that they are legally obligated to refuse orders to shoot unarmed Palestinian protesters, saying such orders are “manifestly illegal.”

Israeli military law requires soldiers to disobey “manifestly illegal” commands, meaning illegal orders that involve a direct threat to life. In the case of other illegal orders, soldiers are required to carry them out and then report it.

Palestinian volunteers with the B’Tselem human rights organization learn how to use video cameras to document the actions of the IDF and Israeli settlers in the West Bank, in 2014. (B’Tselem/CC BY 4.0)

“B’Tselem warned of the expected outcome of this policy and now, ahead of the expected demonstrations this Friday, it is again clarifying that shooting unarmed demonstrators is illegal and that orders to shoot in this manner are manifestly illegal,” the group wrote in its Hebrew advertisements.

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.

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.

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.

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. The IDF on Saturday named and detailed 10 of the dead as members of terror groups including Hamas. Islamic Jihad later claimed an eleventh.

B’Tselem’s claim that shooting unarmed protesters constitutes a “manifestly illegal” order 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 Palestinian protester hurls stones toward Israeli soldiers during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

A spokesperson for B’Tselem clarified that the group is referring to anyone not carrying a firearm or explosive device. Therefore, someone throwing a Molotov cocktail over the security fence or using a slingshot to hurl rocks at soldiers on the other side would be considered an “unarmed protester” under the group’s definition since they “don’t really present a threat to life,” he said.

The spokesperson noted that IDF soldiers are typically positioned a few meters from the border and behind an earthen berm.

This is not the view of the IDF, along with many international legal sources, which maintains that firebombs and rocks do present a credible threat and therefore warrant the use of live fire.

The army also holds the opinion that attempts to sabotage and break through the Gaza security fence justify the use of gunfire as such actions could lead to a mass infiltration of Israeli territory, something the IDF is required to prevent.

This view is more contentious.

According to Eliav Lieblich, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s faculty of law, breaches of the fence or attempts to damage it do not in and of themselves amount to an action that warrants lethal force.

IDF footage that appears to show Palestinians burning tires along the Gaza security fence during a massive protest on March 30, 2018.

Lieblich co-wrote a legal brief on the legality of the army’s tactics ahead of Friday’s protests.

The army’s implication that an attack on the security fence could lead to mobs of people rushing into Israel, which could spell “catastrophe,” does not hold water as a legal argument, Lieblich said. “You don’t know for a fact what is going to happen next,” he told The Times of Israel earlier this week.

This is not necessarily true if the person breaking through the fence is a known member of a terrorist group, he noted.

Lieblich stressed, however, that this pertains only to the attempts to sabotage or break through the fence; not to any attempts to plant explosives or attack troops with rocks and firebombs, which much more clearly represent a threat to life, he said.

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.

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)

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,” Defense Minister Avigdor 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.

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