Killings on Gaza Border Increase Danger of Escalation

IDF concerned that shooting deaths of six Gazans at the border fence could lead to a possible spillover of West Bank violence.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza border, October 9, 2015.
Palestinians during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza border, October 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Stabbing attacks by Palestinian assailants continued over the weekend and took place in Jerusalem, Afula and in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron. In Dimona, it was a Jewish teen who stabbed three Palestinians and a Bedouin man. The panic among the public is still high, and the incidents provide dramatic material for the media.

Violent protests also broke out over the last two days in Arab communities in Israel, in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, but the most significant incident of the past few days could well have taken place on the border with the Gaza Strip, far from the stabbings that have engulfed Israel.

Seven Palestinians were killed by Israel Defense Forces fire on the Gaza border on Friday during violent demonstrations that followed the advance of hundreds of Gazans towards the security fence around the enclave. Dozens of others were wounded. Three more Gazans were killed in similar protests on Saturday.

The number of casualties is extraordinary; apparently unprecedented for that type of incident.

There was consensus among the General Staff on Friday night that a problematic turning point had occurred. Not only because the immediate result was unwanted (the deaths of civilian, most of them youths, rather than terrorists armed with weapons,) but because it indicated, for the first time, the possible spillover of the West Bank violence into another sector.

It's exactly what happened last year, when the war in Gaza followed the tension generated by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank.

Sources in the IDF's southern command explained that the number of participants in the main Palestinian demonstration, adjacent to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, was particularly high – about 3,000 people – and that many of them had come dangerously close to the fence in an attempt to cross it. A grenade was thrown, though it didn't explode, and fire bombs were also used. One of the gates was set alight.

The paratroop brigade soldiers responded with live fire. Similar clashed occurred at the Erez crossing in the north of the strip and near Khan Yunis in the south.

Two Palestinians youths were killed by IDF fire during violent demonstrations in the West Bank last week. Preliminary investigations by central command indicated lack of adherence to open-fire regulations in both cases.

The restoration of quiet in the West Bank, in the army's view, requires strict adherence to open-fire regulations and avoiding, as far as possible, the killing of civilians. With unrest of the extent seen in the West Bank and East Jerusalem recently, it's appears to be difficult to achieve that goal completely.

That said, one of the reasons that the IDF limited it mobilization in the West Bank to four regiments was the concern about a high "cost of learning." New units that are called into an unstable front are more inclined to confusion and over-reaction. The military apparatus, as opposed to social media and the many politicians who are influenced by them, stresses the differentiation between effectively dealing with terrorists and careful contact with the civilian population and it attempts to act accordingly.

On the Gaza border, for reasons that will need to be investigated, the opposite happened on Friday. The army will need to investigate the early intelligence estimates of participation in the demonstrations (it's reasonable to assume they were lower,) how the forces were deployed ahead of time, what orders they were given (how they were told to balance the responsibility for ensuring that the fence wasn't breached with the requirement to avoid civilian deaths) and how they operated in the field.

The heavy death toll is reminiscent of the army's failure in dealing with the Syrian civilians who rushed the Golan border on Nakba Day in the spring of 2011. Except that in Gaza there is much longer history of such border demonstrations, most of which did not end with such a high death toll. Were the previous lessons learnt? That too will need to be investigated.

In the current public atmosphere, with Internet surfers celebrating over every picture of a terrorist's body and TV correspondents writhing on air not to be suspected of leftist sympathies, it is likely that the deaths of the six Gazans will not receive much attention.

But their deaths are important, and not only because an army that repeatedly declares itself the most moral in the world can't afford them. Firstly, it is clear that the result is far from that expected by the IDF in such a situation. And secondly, it could have repercussions on the nature of the current conflict.

Friday's protests were organized by the Islamic Jihad. Hamas police, who were in the area of the fence, didn't interfere. In the past, the Palestinian organizations responded with rocket fire in response to the killing of civilians near the fence by the IDF.

The question now is what exactly is the interest of Hamas in Gaza? Ever since last year's war, the organization has largely avoided stepping on toes, so as not to get involved in another clash with Israel. The population of Gaza has not yet recovered from the damage inflicted on them by the last war.

Now, Hamas might loosen the leash on Islamic Jihad and the radical Salafist groups. In the background is Iran, which sponsors the Islamic Jihad in Gaza and has a good deal of influence over its activities. Rocket fire from the strip over the next few days is a reasonable scenario. But the magnitude of the fire, the targets that are chosen and, of course, whether it leads to casualties – those are the factors that will decide whether Gaza, too, will be dragged into escalation.

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