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Probe faults poor placement, not open-fire rules in soldier’s death in Gaza riot

Initial findings presented to family of slain border guard Barel Hadaria Shmueli; army chief calls for military’s investigation to be completed, lessons to be implemented

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

Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

An Israel Defense Forces probe blamed the killing of a Border Police sniper during a Gaza border riot last month on poor deployment of troops, not overly restrictive open-fire regulations, the military said Friday.

On August 21, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip held a large demonstration along the Gaza border, near the defunct Karni Crossing. At one point during the demonstration, dozens of rioters rushed the border barrier, up to a hole in the concrete wall that was being used by Israeli snipers as a firing position. One man, armed with a gun, approached this hole in the wall, stuck his pistol through it and fired three times. One of these shots struck border guard Barel Hadaria Shmueli in the head, critically wounding him. He died of his injury on August 30.

In the aftermath of Shmueli’s death, his parents — as well as right-wing members of the opposition — have been highly critical of the military, accusing the IDF of putting in place unclear and dangerous rules of engagement that prevented troops from keeping back the rioters from the barrier. A small number of soldiers also joined this criticism, launching a campaign on social media saying that the IDF top brass had “tied its hands.”

The IDF immediately launched an internal investigation, the initial findings of which it said refuted these claims.

“It would have been correct to deploy the troops and use them differently once the violent masses reached the defensive wall. At the same time, no issue was found in terms of the rules of engagement, which were not changed at any point before these events or during them,” the military said.

The military’s investigation found that the Northern Gaza Brigade commander may have been slow to respond when the rioters rushed the fence. Only after the masses reached the barrier did he order the soldiers that had been stationed farther back to take positions closer to the border, according to the probe.

“The chief of staff determined that the rules allowed for completion of the operational mission and the removal of any threat to life. It was also found that during this event significant gunfire was conducted in response to the riots,” the IDF said.

The IDF’s probe found that Shmueli himself fired a number of shots during the riot along the barrier, which strengthened the belief that the open-fire regulations were not an issue.

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli (left) killed in a shooting on the Gaza border, on August 21, 2021, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right). (Border Police; Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The findings of the IDF probe were presented to Shmueli’s family on Friday morning by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano.

Earlier this week, Shmueli’s family called for a “rigorous, objective and independent investigation” into the circumstances of the shooting. This would be an uncommon and dramatic move, as such incidents are typically handled within the chain of command, not with an independent investigation.

“We have learned from Barel’s friends that the instructions were vague at best,” said the family’s attorney, Ran Cohen Rochberger. “There was an instruction to contain the [riot] and avoid unnecessary harm [to Palestinians].”

Rochberger said that the family will not accept “the passing of responsibility to a low-ranking officer… we’re not looking for culprits but we are demanding an investigation across all ranks. It’s clear that the failure here was multi-systemic… not just in the Border Police but in all of the IDF.”

In addition to refuting the claim of overly restrictive open-fire regulations, the military said the investigation also determined that the troops were well trained for the riot response mission and that additional soldiers, notably snipers and sharpshooters, had been sent to the border ahead of the riots.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi noted that the top brass was present alongside the soldiers on the border. “IDF commanders go ahead of their soldiers and lead them into battle. And this is how it was in this case,” he said in a statement.

Yet Kohavi ordered the military to complete its investigation into Shmueli’s death and to implement the initial lessons learned from the probe so far.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony on the Israel Navy’s Haifa Base on September 2, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Thursday night, Kohavi defended the military against the ongoing criticism against it in a speech marking the entrance of Maj. Gen. David Salame into the position of commander of the navy.

“The soldiers and commanders are equipped with all of the tools and with open-fire rules that are clear. Claims to the contrary are baseless and are nothing but a total lie,” Kohavi said.

“Any soldier that feels threatened and at risk, in war or peace time, is allowed to, needs to, and is required to take action and remove the threat,” he added.

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