An internal Israeli army investigation into the deaths of 153 Palestinians during protests along the Gaza-Israel border is expected to find that none of the incidents involved violations of open-fire orders and therefore there are no grounds for referring any of the cases to the Military Police for further investigation. Demonstrators killed by army fire were not intentionally targeted, but died as a result of “operational mishaps,” according to the team of investigators, headed by Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Moti Baruch.
Within days, the team from the army’s general staff headquarters is expected to pass on its conclusions to Military Advocate General Maj. Gen Sharon Afek. The conclusions will not, however, be binding on Afek, who can choose to review the material himself and order an investigation into any case of suspected wrongdoing — in part, in order to face future proceedings against Israeli soldiers at the international court in The Hague. Even if Afek decides to open an investigation, the Military Police cannot make use of the information that has already been collected by the internal army team.
The investigation spans the period from the start of the mass demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border on March 30, a day in which 16 Palestinians were killed, up until July 14. The probe was initiated by army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot soon after the April 6 shooting death of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja , which sparked international and local criticism of the army’s open-fire policy. The investigators obtained details on each case in which demonstrators were killed, including the log entries of the army snipers involved, the reason for opening fire and who approved the order.
The team found that in each incident weapons fire was carried out in accordance with open-fire orders and none of the Israeli army sharpshooters had deliberately targeted uninvolved Palestinian bystanders. The panel noted several reasons for what they termed “operational mishaps” that resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including cases in which bullets had hit border fence installations or the ground, cases in which demonstrators intruded into the line of fire after troops had opened fire and incidents in which bullets ricocheted, subsequently hitting Palestinians. In the course of the investigation, the Israeli army raised the height of some of its sniper positions to minimize the risk of hitting Palestinians unintentionally.
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The team sought to thoroughly investigate incidents involving women or children, including the killing of 14-year-old Mohammed Ayoub, who according to Palestinian accounts, was not involved in disturbances when he was shot. Also investigated were the shooting deaths of Murtaja, the journalist, and paramedic Razan al-Najjar, neither of whom were shot deliberately, the army concluded based on soldiers’ accounts. The investigative team found no evidence in any of these cases that the killings were carried out in violation of open-fire orders.
In cases in which Palestinians were killed in the course of what was deemed clear terrorist activity, such as opening fire or throwing explosives or hand grenades at Israeli troops, the team concluded that troops opened fire due to operational needs, and did not investigate the incidents in detail. The team, which also received intelligence information in the course of its work, found that many of those killed along the border fence in recent months were members of the military wing of Hamas or other groups in Gaza.
Israeli army sources have said in recent months that open-fire orders were not changed in the course of the period of the demonstrations and that the disparate range of casualties was the result of a rise in the level of Palestinian violence and attempts to cross or damage the border fence.
The investigation found that at first, Israeli snipers also shot at Palestinians who launched incendiary kites near the border fence and in several cases, the snipers hit the Palestinians in the legs. Soon after, the Palestinians moved further away from the fence to launch kites and the army stopped targeting them.
In similar cases in the past, including those arising from the 2014 war that Israel fought against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, the military prosecutor declined to accept the recommendations from the investigative teams appointed by the army’s general staff headquarters and did not demand additional information from them to clarify the legal implications of the incidents. The teams generally accord greater weight to the operational aspects of the incidents than their international legal implications. In some of the cases examined this time, the military advocate general is expected to ask for clarifications relating to the operational conclusions regarding compliance with regulations, open-fire orders and how the incidents were reported.