IDF: Friendly Fire Death Near Gaza May Be Due to Software Malfunction

Soldier killed and four others wounded when comrades chased militants near border fence; tensions persisted over weekend when a mortar attack left one Thai worker in serious condition and slightly wounded two others.

An Israeli soldier was killed and four soldiers were wounded in a friendly fire incident Friday evening on the Gaza border after the soldiers chased militants near the border fence.

Nadav Rotenberg

The IDF is now investigating whether a similar mishap occurred in the system a few months ago during training. The system is generally considered reliable.

Tensions continued  on Saturday when a Thai worker was seriously wounded and two Thai workers were slightly wounded by a Palestinian mortar shell fired at Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

The Israel Defense Forces is expected to retaliate against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, though Military Intelligence says it does not expect a major flare-up.

Meanwhile, two Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank over the past two days.

Tensions rose between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the PA's decision to release from prison six senior activists from Hamas' military wing. The IDF killed a 67-year-old Hebron man while looking for one of the freed prisoners, wanted for terror activities. The IDF said the killing was a mistake.

The soldier killed on the Gaza border is Sgt. Nadav Rotenberg, 20, from Moshav Ramot Hashavim near Ra'anana. An initial investigation indicates that Rotenberg and the other soldiers were hit when a software malfunction caused a mortar to fire at the IDF troops instead of the Palestinians.

The two Palestinians, from Islamic Jihad, fled the scene uninjured.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the mortar attack at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Senior officers said Israel holds Hamas responsible for everything that happens in Gaza, so the IDF would retaliate against Hamas and anyone responsible for firing mortars.

But Military Intelligence still believes that Hamas wants to avoid a general escalation, despite the increasing number of incidents on the Gaza border over the past month.

The killing of the two Palestinians over the weekend raised the number of Palestinians killed this month to four, three of whom were noncombatants.

At the Beka'ot checkpoint in the northern Jordan Valley, soldiers yesterday shot a Palestinian approaching with a pipe bomb.

On Friday, 67-year-old Omar Qawasmeh was killed by soldiers during an arrest operation in Hebron against Hamas men. An elite undercover force had come to arrest Wa'il Bitar, a Hamas activist wanted for involvement in terror attacks, a few hours after the PA released him from prison.

The soldiers saw Qawasmeh standing on the second floor; Bitar was on the first floor. According to the testimony of one of the soldiers, Qawasmeh was shot after he ran toward them.

Qawasmeh's family said he was shot by 14 bullets at close range.

The IDF yesterday conceded several failures in the Hebron operation, citing apparently imprecise intelligence and a hasty response by troops.

In the years after the Oslo Accords, the concept of the "strategic corporal" was discussed: a soldier whose actions at a checkpoint or during an operation could ignite a flare-up. This year began with a number of such incidents.

The shooting of Qawasmeh reflects the PA's increasing difficulties justifying its close security cooperation with Israel.

Qawasmeh's funeral yesterday, which was attended by around 5,000 people, revealed a rare display of unity between the PA and Hamas, as officials from both groups walked together in the procession. Both sides called for an end to the Israeli occupation, including the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas' Aziz Dweik.

It is unclear how the PA released Bitar without realizing that the IDF would immediately try to arrest him. The PA may have wanted to convey that security cooperation with Israel is at risk because of the diplomatic impasse between the two sides.

It is more likely, however, that the release was a goodwill gesture by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to Hamas in light of the crisis with Israel. The six prisoners were set free after a condolence phone call to Abbas after his brother had died in Damascus. The call came from Hamas' Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshal and its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.

Meanwhile, independent Palestinian politicians continue to work toward a meeting between senior Hamas and Fatah officials. It is not clear whether Abbas has decided to reconcile with Hamas.

Last week Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti issued a call from his Israeli prison cell for reconciliation with Hamas. He also called on the Palestinian people to increase their popular opposition to the occupation.