Along the tense Gaza frontier

On a rare foray into the border area, the army gives our reporter its side of the story.

October 8, 2010 16:28
Gaza Border Fence

Gaza Border 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

As the rocketing of Sderot has subsided dramatically in the nearly two years since Operation Cast Lead, the low-intensity war being fought along Gaza’s border has received little attention. Beyond laconic IDF statements about shootings of terrorists approaching the border fence, little is reported. There are no Israeli journalists, settlers or soldiers in Gaza anymore (except Gilad Schalit), while reports from foreign media and human rights organizations, which tend to be critical of the control Israel still exerts over Gaza from outside, are typically ignored or derided.

On September 12, though, an incident near the northern part of the Gaza Strip received more than the usual, meager level of attention: An unarmed 91-year-old Palestinian farm employee, Ibrahim Abu Said, his teenage grandson and another young man were killed by an IDF tank shell a few hundred meters from the border.

Palestinians denounced it as a blatant example of what the army does on a day-to-day basis – shoot indiscriminately at civilians who come within range, especially farmers trying to tend their fields and young people scavenging for scrap metal.

The army acknowledged up front that the dead suspects had been unarmed, but the investigation exonerated the soldiers who fired the shell. “One of the young men had picked up an RPG [shoulder-fired missile launcher] from the ground. He might have been just playing with it, but the tank unit felt threatened. They thought it was being aimed at them, so they fired. Right before that, there had been mortars fired at our positions,” a senior defense official in the northern Gaza Strip told The Jerusalem Post this week.

During a brief tour of a largely barren stretch of the northern border, he pointed: “Over that rise, by that little building to the left of those five palm trees – that’s where they were standing.”

No Palestinians were questioned in the IDF investigation, said the official. In this case, no Palestinians besides the three dead were in the vicinity, but at any rate the army has no direct contact with Gaza’s population except during brief military incursions, so the Palestinian side, as a rule, is not heard in army inquiries.

The official says he knows of no “mistaken” killing of a single civilian – in which soldiers fired at a Palestinian without sufficient reason – during the last year and a half in Gaza. Since the beginning of 2010, he says, soldiers at the border have killed about 30 armed Palestinians and some five civilians. Of the five, he cites the grandfather and the two young men, along with a man who was carrying a slingshot at the head of group of protesters headed for the border fence.

“We fired warning shots and he didn’t leave.

Then the soldiers fired with the intent to injure, not kill. They hit him around the knee, and he didn’t get proper treatment over there, and he bled to death,” said the official, noting that the reason demonstrators are not allowed near the fence is that some, often youngsters, use the opportunity to plant explosives.

Another defense official said, “The unarmed Palestinians killed were not involved in terror, but none of them were purely innocent bystanders, either.”

THIS IS the IDF’s view of its open-fire policy on the Gaza border – beyond reproach. The same goes for its maintenance of the no-go zone on the Gazan side of the border fence and of its dispatch of tanks and bulldozers over the border a few times a week for “clearance” operations.

“We try to do as little damage to the fabric of civilian life in Gaza as possible,” a defense official maintained.

However, the UN and Red Cross, which maintain high-profile missions in Gaza and have frequent contact with Israeli officials, along with Human Rights Watch, which keeps an eye on the situation there, hold a starkly different view of IDF conduct in the area.

While all three international bodies recognize that Israel is being attacked and provoked by Gazan guerrillas and that it has the full right to defend itself, the UN, Red Cross and HRW maintain that the IDF’s policy causes much more harm to Gazan civilians than can be justified.

The most detailed criticism came in an August report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Under a section titled “Arbitrary Opening of Fire,” the report contends that the IDF keeps Gazans up to 1.5 km.

from the border – the IDF insists the buffer zone extends only 300 meters – by “opening live fire at people entering those areas. In most cases ‘warning shots’ are fired to force people out of the area, which results in no casualties... [but a] minority of cases have resulted in the death and injury of civilians.”

Notable among those hit, according to the report, are farmers and metal scavengers entering the zone, as well as fishermen sailing beyond the IDF-imposed nautical limits. The UN called on the IDF to “immediately stop the opening of ‘warning fire’ at civilians.”

The report said that since the end of Operation Cast Lead in mid-January 2009 through July of this year, 22 Palestinian civilians had been killed by the IDF and 146 wounded.

However, neither the UN, Red Cross nor HRW is accusing the IDF of outright recklessness. The UN report notes that 41 armed Palestinians were killed during the same period – nearly double the number of civilians.

The Jerusalem Post learned of a confidential Red Cross report given to the IDF that raises the same sort of criticisms found in the published UN report. Yet there was a discrepancy in the casualty statistics: The Red Cross study, covering the period from the end of Cast Lead through April of this year, found six civilians killed and 21 wounded. However, the Red Cross document noted that these statistics were “not exhaustive” and were based on a limited number of Palestinian sources.

Neither the IDF nor the Red Cross would comment on the confidential report. The published UN report was based on “101 semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions carried out among affected populations and key informants.”

Bill Van Esveld, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has written reports about violations in Gaza by both Israel and Hamas, said that a few weeks after Operation Cast Lead, he was examining the destruction in Khuzaa, a village about a half-kilometer from the border, when residents warned him not to stray too far.

“The IDF had sheared off the edge of the town, knocking down a row of houses. The residents told me, ‘Don’t go over there; stay on this side of the rubble or you’ll get shot.’ That’s when it came home to me,” he said.

Since then, in various parts of Gaza, some civilians were “shot in broad daylight, when the only thing ‘unusual’ about them was that they were young men,” Van Esveld continued.

Noting that many of them were picking up scrap metal, a valuable commodity, as the IDF bans metal imports because they’re used to build tunnels and weapons, he said it’s easy to mistake a man holding metal bars for a man holding a gun.

“You can’t just take a shot at anyone who picks up a big tube – that’s what they do for their livelihood,” he said. “Some of them [who look from a distance like they might be armed] could be scavengers, and some of them could be shooters.”

The IDF insists that soldiers adhere to “strict rules of engagement,” that when they see a suspect they first fire in the air, then at the ground and then below the knees. “At night, when it’s harder to see, the rules of engagement are even stricter,” said the senior official.

Furthermore, he said that while Gazan terror organizations commonly send children to plant explosives, Israeli soldiers are extremely reluctant to fire at them. “Every day we chase kids away from the fence; we don’t shoot. Recently we saw a boy of about 13 or 14 driving a donkey cart carrying an explosive charge up to the fence. We let him run away. The explosive went off, nobody was nearby, nobody got hurt,” the official said.

Against this, the UN report says that of 22 civilians killed from January 2009 through July 2010, six were children, as were 27 of 146 civilians wounded.

ANOTHER BLACK-and-white contrast between the IDF’s version and its critics’ version is over the depth of the buffer zone – the distance from the border where it’s unsafe for Palestinians to be.

The IDF says the zone extends 300 meters.

“We try not to let anybody come in there because they can lay explosives along the border fence,” says the senior defense official.

“But even with all our efforts, we still find 50 to 60 explosives a year.”

Two soldiers were killed and another wounded by explosives planted near the border last year, he notes.

Beyond 300 meters, he adds, Palestinian farmers can farm their fields and, in general, civilians can go wherever they like without fear or disturbance from the IDF. Armed Palestinian guerrillas, however, are fair game at any range. “Two weeks ago we shot a guy 800 meters away – he’d fired an RPG at our forces,” said the defense official.

However, the UN, the Red Cross and HRW’s Van Esveld all say the effective buffer zone extends much farther than 300 meters.

The UN says the “no-go zone” extends 500 meters from the border. From 500 meters to 1.5 km., the report continues, is the “highrisk zone,” where, except in built-up, populated areas, civilians suspected of being guerrillas are liable to be fired at with long-range rifles, machine guns or tank shells, which have little precision at such distances.

“Opening fire at people accessing this area... are common and widespread practices; however, they are carried out irregularly and unpredictably,” says the UN. “As a general rule, the deeper one enters these areas in the direction of the fence, the more likely one is to receive warning or direct fire.”

Civilians have been hit and threatened by IDF projectiles at such distances, the report says, noting, however, that armed Palestinians active in the area “trigger and compound” the dangers to civilians from IDF long-range firing. The Red Cross report, for its part, says the buffer zone effectively extends one kilometer.

A key criticism of the IDF is that it enforces the buffer zone inconsistently, to different depths in different areas, without informing the population where it is safe to go and where not. In May of last year, the IDF dropped leaflets over Gaza warning residents not to come within 300 meters of the border fence. Critics say this gave people the false and dangerous impression that beyond 300 meters they were safe.

“Why doesn’t anybody really know where the buffer zone is?” insists Van Esveld. “Why did the IDF say in its leaflets that it extended 300 meters when the people in Gaza say they’re being shot at from up to 1.5 km away? If it’s intended as a buffer zone to keep people at a distance, why is it implemented in an ad hoc way?”

THE IDF flatly denies firing at anybody except active combatants – Palestinians using weapons or about to use them at Israeli targets – at any point beyond 300 meters. “There’s nothing to this claim,” says the senior defense official. “If we were shooting beyond 300 meters, there would be a lot more deaths.”

IDF Col. Moshe Levi, head of the Coordination and Liaison Administration in Gaza, which handles the transfer of humanitarian aid, agrees that these criticisms are without merit. “It’s just not so about 1.5 km.

We couldn’t control an area that deep. Maybe there are farmers who are afraid to farm their land out there, but that’s their issue.”

One more clear illustration of the essentially 180- degree difference between the two versions of the IDF’s actions along the Gazan border regards these “clearance” operations with bulldozers and tractors. Both sides agree there is little left to bulldoze within a few hundred meters of the border. This was visible during the tour. The senior defense official says that the turf has been barren since he took up his post a year and a half ago. The UN report says the IDF began flattening it after the second intifada started 10 years ago.

Both sides also agree that beyond the 300-meter line, the IDF carries out “clearance” operations a few times a week; the UN says these involve bulldozers, tractors and jeeps, “frequently accompanied by helicopters, drones and heavy bursts of fire.”

But what happens during the course of these operations is, once again, a matter of polar disagreement.

The UN says that in recent years, the targets of these incursions have been anything that can provide cover for Palestinian guerrillas, with little or no regard for its importance to the owners.

“The replacement value of civilian property destroyed in the restricted areas during the past five years is conservatively estimated at $308 million,” says the report. “This includes some 18,000 dunams of land planted with fruit trees, 5,800 dunams of greenhouses, nearly 1,000 residential structures, more than 300 water wells and six factories, among others.”

However, the senior defense official maintains that at least during the last year and a half, the clearance operations have not caused any property damage.

“What we do is flatten the higher areas of brush where terrorists can hide, where they can hide weapons. We do this so we can see what’s out there,” he said. “We never knock down houses or sheds or anything like that. That’s completely false.”

During the tour of a section of the northern border area, there was little to see except patches of orchards surrounded by vast stretches of field crops and sand. Whether or not anything had been standing there a few years ago, of course, could not be seen. For an Israeli on a brief IDF-authorized visit to Gaza, “objective facts” are extremely hard to find.

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