Israeli Army to Investigate Gazan Protesters' Deaths as Second Border Rally Approaches

Organizers expect more than 35,000 participants in second weekend of protests ■ Israeli military deploys extra forces and maintains regulations for opening fire ■ IDF aircraft attacks armed Palestinian near border

Palestinian youth protesting close to the border between Israel and Gaza.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

A week after Israeli army snipers killed 19 Gazans and wounded hundreds more, the second wave of the March of Return protests will begin this Friday morning near the Gazan border with Israel. Last Friday’s marches attracted 35,000 people, and organizers expect more this time.

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In preparation for Friday’s protests, bulldozers were at work on Wednesday expanding the area of the tent encampment near Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, and creating sand heaps near the border fence to protect demonstrators from Israeli fire.

Gazans have also been collecting tires, which they plan to burn near the border fence in hopes that the thick, black smoke will make it difficult for soldiers to shoot at demonstrators. On social media, this Friday’s protest is already being dubbed Rubber Tire Day.

Israeli Defense Forces' aircraft opened fire Wednesday night on an armed Palestinian near the border fence in the northern Gaza Strip, says a statement from IDF spokesperson. The Palestinian Health Ministry has confirmed it found a body east of Gaza city, saying the man died in the Israeli airstrike.

In a seperate statement on Thursday, the PA Health Ministry reported of three fisherman wounded from live fire by IDF off the coast of Gaza. 

The Israel Defense Forces will reinforce its deployment along the Gaza border, ahead of Friday’s demonstrations by Gaza residents near the border fence. The regulations for opening fire, which allow snipers to shoot anyone approaching the fence with the intent of breaching it and entering Israel, remain in force. Nevertheless, the army will hold an internal investigation to examine the circumstances that led to the deaths and injuries in last week’s protests and in other border incidents during the week.

The final decision regarding the nature of the investigation is expected in the coming days. IDF chief spokesperson Ronen Manelis told reporters from the international media this week that Israel does not require a third party inquiry into the army's actions, as the IDF has its own effective mechanism. He noted that after 2014's Operation Protective Edge, that same mechanism acted to collect all the inquiries into incidents resulting in civilian deaths, and transferred them to the army's Attorney General.

At the head of the mechanism formed after Protective Edge was Maj. Gen. Noam Tibon, who was later replaced by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yitzhak Eitan. It is possible a similar process will take place in this case. The inquiry done by the Gaza division shows IDF and Police snipers fired 650 rounds durring Friday's incidents. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported of over 700 wounded from live gunfire on that day. Israel has called into question the validity of the Palestinian report, and posit the tally includes those wounded by rubber-tipped bullets and teargas. 140 wounded remain hospitialized in Al-Shifa hospital in the Strip as a result of the incidents. 

The Palestinian Health Ministry reported Thursday that a 34-year-old resident of Rafah had succumbed to a headshot wound he suffered last Friday during the protest, raising the rally's death toll up to 20.

On Wednesday, as has been the case throughout this week, some of the young male protesters came up to the border fence and drew Israeli fire. The Red Crescent said two people were lightly wounded in the legs by live bullets when they and dozens of other young men approached the border near Nahal Oz.

Hamas operatives, including members of its armed wing, have been prominent in the preparations and the demonstrations themselves. A large quantity of tires has been assembled in Gaza, which will reportedly be set on fire, as well as to use mirrors, in the hope that smoke and blinding will make it hard for snipers to find their targets.

Because of the tension, forces from the Givati and Nahal brigades will be deployed along the border, reinforcing Golani and Armored Corps forces which are already in the area. Senior officers will supervise operations, headed by Southern Command chief Eyal Zamir. Defense Minister Lieberman and Chief-of-Staff Eisenkot visited the Gaza Division this week to ensure that lessons from last week were drawn and preparations were made for this week.

Protest organizers said last Friday’s events proved that the so-called March of Return is a nonviolent protest with a uniform message on which all the Palestinian factions agree, and that will encourage more people to join. They also expect to see solidarity demonstrations in cities throughout the Arab and Islamic world, as well as in Europe. Organizers contend that last Friday’s protest and the smaller follow-up protests during the week have been successful in attracting international attention and getting the demonstrator’ talking points disseminated worldwide.