The Palestinian protest marches near the fence along the Israel-Gaza border are expected to resume on Friday. The Hamas government in Gaza, which at first related to the organizers with some suspicion, is now exploiting the marches for its own purposes. Hamas sees the 19 fatalities and hundreds of wounded by the Israeli army’s use of live fire since the demonstrations commenced last Friday as a great success. Senior officials there are talking about a tie-breaker. In their assessment, Israel is finding it hard to produce an effective response to stop these marches without evoking international criticism.
The numerous incidents along the fence may also delay the completion of the barrier intended to prevent more cross-border tunnels. This engineering project is being given the highest priority by Israel and Hamas has so far not found a suitable countermeasure.
Apparently cold calculation is behind the decision to employ extensive sniper fire directed at demonstrators. Israeli politicians, whose involvement in preparations for the Gazan “March of Return” was not very intense, instructed the army to prevent a breach of the fence. It’s doubtful that they held detailed discussions about the means to achieve this. The understanding was that international interest in events on the Gaza border was limited. Israel would be subject to the usual condemnations no matter how it handled the demonstrations. However, it was believed that the public support the government now gets from the U.S. administration and the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia in the UN Security Council (which prevented any condemnation of massacres committed by the Assad regime and Russia in Syria) would foil any significant actions against Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces was stung by a series of penetrations along the border in the week that preceded the march (the significance of these events was inflated by some media organizations) and there was concern that poor maintenance of the fence would enable people to breach it with little difficulty. A number of kibbutzim, such as Erez, Kfar Aza and Nahal Oz, are but a few minutes’ run from the border. The army was preparing for the possibility that groups of young Palestinians would run into one of these communities.
The IDF General Staff and Southern Command formulated some directives based on such a scenario. Forces were instructed to fire warning shots at anyone who crossed a line which was a few hundred meters west of the fence, inside Palestinian territory. Following that, anyone continuing to advance would be shot by snipers, who would be aiming for the legs. This was especially the case when it came to leaders of the procession or “key inciters,” in the words of the army spokesman. All the fatalities were indeed young men, not women or children. Most of them were identified as members of the military wings of Palestinian organizations. They were all hit close to the fence.
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The army believes they were part of a vanguard that was meant to breach the fence, and that some of them tried to lay explosive devices under the cover of the demonstrations, as has occurred over the last two months. In one case, members of an armed squad that opened fire at an IDF unit were hit in the northern part of the Strip, not far from one of the demonstration’s focal points.
Testimonies of correspondents on the Israeli side about the rate of firing and Palestinian reports of 800 people wounded attest to quite permissive orders given to the snipers. Even when the area is divided into sectors, commanded by senior officers, an area commander has no close control over the sharpshooters’ every shot. This situation leaves a lot to the discretion of relatively young soldiers, even though they were reinforced by more veteran police and Border Police snipers. The number of casualties was in accordance with these circumstances.
The number of fatalities yet again underscores Israel’s long-standing failure – commented on by the State Comptroller in 2003 and 2017 – to develop nonlethal measures which would be effective in dispersing demonstrations and marches from a relatively large distance.
The confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians has been changing shape over the years, but occasionally things repeats themselves, even with some element of irony. In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, the IDF pursued pretty lax rules of engagement, allowing firing at anyone approaching the border fence from Gaza. One of the General Staff’s generals said that the prevention of infiltration had become an end that justified the means. “As a result, we have a situation reminiscent of the Wild West. The message to soldiers in the field is: Do as you see fit. A black hole has formed in the Gaza Strip and the General Staff did not adequately monitor it. We can’t shoot someone just because he’s inside some defined space,” he argued.
At the time, a young division commander disputed the directives for opening fire that were given by the IDF’s Gaza Division. When armored battalions from his division were called up for service in Gaza, he instructed them to ignore the open-fire directives and not automatically approve shooting at anyone approaching the fence before their intentions were known. The name of that division commander was Gadi Eisenkot – the current IDF chief of staff.