Three days after the deadliest day in the Gaza Strip since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, significant questions — factual, legal, and moral — abound regarding what happened on both sides of the security fence.
What exactly were the 16 Palestinians who were killed — and the many more who were injured — doing when they were shot by IDF troops on Friday? Did their actions warrant the use of lethal force? How else could the IDF have responded to the protests?
Tens of thousands of Palestinians took part in the demonstrations along the Gaza fence, marking “Land Day,” a commemoration of the expropriation of Arab land in the Galilee by the Israeli government on March 30, 1976, and subsequent protests in which six Arab Israelis were killed.
It was the start of a six-week “March of Return,” which will end in mid-May with both “Nakba Day,” marking the displacement of Arabs after Israel’s creation, and the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a plan that infuriates Palestinian leaders.
The March of Return is an annual event, but this year’s protest in Gaza got significant support from the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip. In addition to the civilians organizing the protest, who maintained that it would be peaceful, there were figures like Khaled al-Batsh, a senior figure in the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group, adding to the complex nature of the protest — part legitimate, part nefarious.
The IDF, however, maintains that the entire protest was only “as if peaceful” and was actually orchestrated by Hamas, which called on its fighters and members to come with their families and rush the border en masse. “Remember how we got to this situation,” IDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis told reporters on Monday.
On Sunday, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported that 15 people were killed from Israeli gunfire during the protests and 1,479 were injured, more than half from live fire and the rest from Israel’s less-lethal riot dispersal measures. One of those injured died of his wounds on Monday morning, bringing the tally to 16 fatalities, all of them men between the ages of 18 and 35, the majority of them affiliated with terrorist groups.
Manelis rejected the Gaza ministry’s figures of people injured by live fire, saying the true figure was dramatically lower, in the dozens.
“There were not hundreds of people injured by gunshots. The overwhelming majority were wounded by riot dispersal means,” he said.
Manelis added that in the army’s view, considering the number of people who took part and the violent nature of the actions on the border, the number of fatalities was “very reasonable.”
Among the dead were two men who, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades, opened fire on Israeli soldiers and attempted to breach the security fence in the northern Gaza Strip, before they were shot by IDF infantrymen and a tank, according to the army. The military later provided video footage of the attack from its surveillance cameras along the fence, as well as photographs of the weapons.
Manelis directly blamed the failed attack on Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar. “There’s no way a terror attack is going to take place without Haniyeh and Sinwar’s approval,” Manelis said.
According to the IDF, the other Palestinians killed were shot in accordance with its rules of engagement.
Manelis said that in the course of Friday, the IDF documented three attempts to place improvised explosive devices along the fence and five attempts to break through the fence with wire cutters, as well as multiple cases of people throwing burning tires at the fence. Though he refused to detail what each of the people shot was suspected of doing and rejected calls for external investigations.
“We don’t need preaching from anyone in the world about when we shoot and which bullet is fired. We will investigate ourselves like no one else would investigate us,” he said.
Some video evidence has called into question the army’s claims that everyone shot represented a clear threat, notably in the case of Abd el-Fatah Abd a-Nabi, who appeared to have been targeted while running a significant distance from the fence, holding a tire.
Manelis would not discuss the specifics of that case, but noted that the video in question was edited and did not show the period immediately before a-Nabi was shot.
Asked about that video and others that appeared to show people being shot while relatively far away from the fence, the spokesperson cast doubt on the veracity of some of them and said that the army would conduct its own internal investigations of each shooting.
“Some things look bad on film, and it’s possible there were mistakes,” he said.
However, Manelis said the army stood by its actions on Friday.
Of the 16 killed, 11 appeared to have been affiliated with terror organizations, he noted, mostly Hamas, but also Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Islamic Jihad, and a salafist group. The army’s identification of these operatives is largely supported by acknowledgements by the terrorist organizations themselves, and by photographs of the men either in uniform or receiving military-style funerals, although a small number could not be immediately substantiated.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman similarly rebuffed calls for external inquiries on Saturday.
Following Friday’s protests, countries around the world expressed concern over the number of people killed.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “those concerned to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties.” France called on Israel to show restraint. And Kuwait tried to get the United Nations to condemn Israel for its military response, but failed after the United States vetoed the proposed resolution.
Manelis took considerable umbrage at the view that Israel was to blame for Friday’s violence and put the responsibility squarely on Hamas, which organized the protest.
“Israel didn’t initiate this. We didn’t want it to happen,” he said.
During the demonstrations, an estimated 30,000 Palestinians took part at six main locations east of major cities and towns along the coastal enclave. Most of the participants stayed several hundred meters back from the security fence separating Gaza from Israel. Photographs and footage from that area showed people dancing and families enjoying barbecues.
But a sizeable portion of the protesters, most of them young men and some young women, came closer to the security fence — within a few dozen meters — lighting fires or using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israeli troops on the other side.
A smaller number went right up to the fence. Footage released by the military and some videos circulating on social media showed mostly young men throwing Molotov cocktails or burning tires at the metal barrier.
According to Manelis, terror groups also tried to take advantage of the chaos to plant improvised explosive devices along the fence in three cases.
During the protest, Israeli troops used tear gas — fired from both handheld grenade launchers and by specially designed drones — as well as rubber bullets and live fire against the Palestinian rioters.
The military maintains that, in accordance with its rules of engagement, live fire was only used against those who represented a direct threat to the Israeli soldiers or to the security fence.
One of the issues in assessing the army’s actions on Friday lies in the amount of information that is unknown or disputed, from the number of people shot to what exactly each of them was doing at the time, said Eliav Lieblich, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s faculty of law.
Without that information, it is difficult to independently determine if those shot indeed represented a threat, as the IDF claims, or not.
This is a problem not only when investigating the 16 reported fatalities, but also the many others who were hit by live bullets, according to Lieblich, who co-wrote a legal brief on the potential difficulties associated with the army’s tactics.
Another graphic video from a far smaller demonstration on Sunday appeared to show a Palestinian teenager being shot in the head as he stood near a pile of burning tires, not seeming to be presenting a clear threat to either IDF soldiers or the security fence.
“When you have 800 people reportedly injured by live fire, it makes you think about the rules of engagement,” Lieblich said over the phone.
Manelis said the army would be conducting its own internal investigations, as it does with any case that results in a death outside of a strict combat setting.
In the lead-up to Friday’s protest, the military made it clear that its most immediate concern was a massive rush toward Israeli territory by thousands or tens of thousands of Gazans, along the lines of what happened along the Lebanese and Syrian borders in June 2011, when mobs broke through perimeter fences into Israel and several Lebanese and Syrian nationals were killed in the ensuing bedlam, some by Israeli troops and others by the Lebanese military.
On Monday, the spokesperson said that was exactly what the army was preparing for.
“Haniyeh had said, ‘We will cut the fence and go to Jerusalem,'” Manelis noted.
His refrain throughout his phone call with reporters was “Imagine what could have happened.”
A mass inrush did not occur.
Perhaps the massive breach was never a credible threat and only talk by the Hamas leader, designed to frighten Israeli citizens and put the military on edge. But Manelis maintained that it was a real danger, averted “only because of how Israel acted” on Friday.
“We prevented a catastrophe,” he said.
Asked how the army would respond if masses of Palestinians did indeed move to break through the fence and march on nearby Israeli communities, Manelis said the army had practiced responding to such scenarios, but that he would “rather not think about that,” as the results would surely be bloody.
A breach of the fence or attempts to damage it do not in and of themselves amount to an action that warrants lethal force, according to Lieblich.
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 said.
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.
Manelis, for his part, said that “‘life threatening’ is a subjective issue.”
Identifying terrorist operatives
One of the more irregular things to come out this weekend was a list of the names, ages, hometowns, pictures and terrorist affiliations of 10 of the 16 fatalities that was published by the IDF on Saturday night. (Israel did not identify an 11th suspected terrorist operative, though Islamic Jihad publicly claimed him as a member.)
The army included a-Nabi in its list of Hamas members. In a poster, Hamas referred to him as a “martyred mujahadeen,” a term it generally reserves for its fallen fighters. His family has denied that he was affiliated with the organization.
Usually, even long after the identities of terrorists are publicized in the media or released by the Shin Bet security service, the army generally refrains from referring to them by name, instead referring to them in official communiques as “the terrorist who killed X” or “the terrorist who committed this or that car-ramming/stabbing/shooting.”
The army was able to release the information on the Gaza fatalities within a day due in some part to its improved camera equipment on the border, but mostly because of the wealth of open-source information on social media, which was more available than in the past.
The army’s unusual move of releasing the identities appears to have been an attempt to strengthen the message that Israeli officials have been spreading for weeks: This was not a peaceful civilian protest, but one orchestrated by terrorist groups for their own purposes.
“A demonstration doesn’t include people burning tires and shooting,” Manelis said.
What else could have been done?
While the IDF may be able to legally justify its use of lethal force, that does not mean that it was necessary in every case.
“My impression is that we, to a certain extent, may have been too quick to fire at a demonstration that I’m not sure endangered our soldiers and that I’m not sure would have trampled the fence and seen masses getting into Israel,” former IDF general Giora Eiland told The Times of Israel on Monday.
The army used a relatively limited array of less-lethal riot dispersal measures on Friday, mostly just tear gas and rubber bullets.
The army’s rules of engagement for live fire also led to a relatively large number of dead Palestinians. Even if the army sees this as “reasonable,” it has led some to ask whether the IDF would do better to change those protocols.
Commentators have also questioned why the army did not rely on other riot dispersal tools it has at its disposal, like the noxious “skunk” spray that smells like rotting flesh and sewage, or bring in additional forces from the Border Police, who are meant to be better trained at responding to riots.
Others have suggested the use of less-lethal riot dispersal weapons from other countries, like the American defense contractor Raytheon’s Active Denial System, which fires energy similar to microwaves at demonstrators, warming the water on the skin until they are forced back because of the painful heat.
According to Manelis, however, the army has no plans to fundamentally change its methods if the protests planned for this coming Friday take place as scheduled in Gaza.
“We will use the same forces and the same capabilities,” he said.