Gaza civilians: exposed to arbitrary IDF warning fire [though IDF says it is not arbitrary]

The Jerusalem Post’s Larry Derfner reported in the weekend Magazine that he was told by a senior Israeli defense official that, so far in 2010, Israeli troops at Gaza border have killed 30 armed Palestinians + five civilians.

According to Derfner’s article, this Israeli official knows of no “mistaken” killing during the past 1.5 years in Gaza. Another Israeli Defense official said, however, that “none … were purely innocent bystanders”.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), however, has reported that “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”.

Derfner mentions the coverage of the killings of two of those five Gazan civilians: on September 12 [the third day of the post-Ramadan Muslim three-day Eid holiday], “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 … 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”.

The Derfner article also says that another one among the five civilian — but no, still not mistaken, according to the IDF official — Palestinian deaths in Gaza this year was “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”.

No Palestinians were questioned in the IDF investigation, said the official” “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 UN-OCHA report, Derfner notes, gives different figures, for a somewhat larger time-period: “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 … The UN report notes that 41 armed Palestinians were killed during the same period – nearly double the number of civilians”. That makes, according to these UN figures, 63 Palestinians who were killed in Gaza, about one-third of whom were civilians, in a year and a half.

Derfner reports that the UN’s OCHA says that the IDF keeps Gazans 1.5 kilometers away from the border, but Israel insists its only 300 meters, while a confidential ICRC report says Gaza buffer zone effectively extends 1 km. Derfner adds that, according to the UN, from 500 to 1500 meter is a “highrisk zone”, and the IDF fires shots with rifles, machine guns or tank shells which have little precision at such distances. Beyond 300 meters, the IDF has “clearance” operations several times a week – with, the UN says, bulldozers, tractors, helicopters, drones + heavy bursts of fire.

A key criticism, he notes, is that the IDF enforces the Gaza buffer zone inconsistently, to different depths in different areas, without giving any information to the population about where it is safe to go.

The UN called on Israel, in August, to “immediately stop opening of ‘warning fire’ at civilians”, Derfner says, but the IDF flatly denies firing at anybody except active combatants at any point beyond 300 meters: “If we were, there would be a lot more deaths”. IDF Col. Moshe Levi of COGAT told Derfner: “Maybe there are farmers who are afraid to farm their land out there, but that’s their issue”.

All sides agree, Derfner writes, that “There is little left to bulldoze within a few hundred meters of the border”. His article is posted here.

The UN OCHA report is posted here.

The report begins by saying that: “Over the past ten years, the Israeli military has gradually expanded restrictions on access to farming on the Gaza side of the Green Line, and to fishing areas along the Gaza Strip coast, with the stated intention of preventing attacks by Palestinian armed factions. The findings of this study indicate that this regime has had a devastating impact on the physical security and livelihoods of nearly 180,000 people, exacerbating the assault on human dignity triggered by the blockade imposed by Israel in 2007”.

[n.b. – This use of the word “blockade”, which was required by some editors to conform to their ideological positions, is responsible for a great deal of confusion. I have chosen to use the word “sanctions” to describe the Israeli military-administered policy of progressively reducing what gets into Gaza to a strict humanitarian minimum that began in October 2007, and which was only somewhat modified after the Freedom Flotilla fiasco on 31 May 2010. Continuing to use the word “blockade” to describe these “sanctions” has led to confusion about when Israel’s formal declaration of a blockade of Gaza’s maritime space began. It is a separate policy, and was announced on 3 January 2009, as the IDF began the ground phase of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza {27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009}. ]

The UN OCHA report states that “Overall, the land restricted area is estimated at 17 percent of the total land mass of the Gaza Strip and 35 percent of its agricultural land. At sea, fishermen are totally prevented from accessing some 85 percent of the maritime areas they are entitled to access according to the Oslo Agreements. An estimated 178,000 people – 12 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip – are directly affected by the access regime implemented by the Israeli military. This includes approximately 113,000 people affected by such measures in land areas, and 65,000 people affected by restrictions to maritime areas. Access restrictions are primarily enforced by opening live fire on people entering the restricted areas … A complementary method used by the Israeli military to discourage access is the systematic levelling of farm land and the destruction of other private property located in restricted areas … Most farmers interviewed for this study indicated that since the expansion of the restricted area in 2008, their income from agriculture has been reduced to less than a third of its previous amount. Others reported having their income wiped out. In the fishing sector, the potential fishing catch lost as a result of access restrictions is estimated at approximately 7,000 metric tonnes, with a related income loss of some USD 26.5 million over a period of five years … The current regime also affects access to schools, seven of which are located within the restricted areas. The safety of students and staff attending these institutions (4,600), the quality of education provided and the level of educational achievement have been seriously undermined by the frequent exposure to Israeli fire at people present in open areas, be they farmers or armed militants. Finally, access restrictions have significantly impeded the maintenance and upgrade of existing wastewater and electricity infrastructure, negatively impacting the provision of services to the entire population of the Gaza Strip. In particular, the prolonged delay in the construction of three wastewater treatment plants has contributed to the daily release of some 80 million litres of raw and partially-treated sewage into the sea and streams, thus adding a significant environmental and health hazard”.

The UN-OCHA report calls the situation “dire”, and says the restrictions must be lifted “urgently” and “to the fullest extent possible”.

It notes that “Reference to a special regime regulating Palestinian access to these areas can be found in the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1994. This agreement provided for the establishment of a 1,000 meter-wide ‘security perimeter’ on the Gaza side of the Green Line, with the Palestinian Police to enforce ‘special security measures’ to prevent the entry of people into Israel, and the introduction of arms or ammunitions into that area, without coordination with the Israeli army. A separate provision established that maritime areas 20 nautical miles off Gaza’s coast into the Mediterranean Sea would be open (under certain conditions) to Palestinian use for fishing, recreation and economic activities, while responsibility for law enforcement in this area would be shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These provisions were only partially implemented before the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000. Since then, Palestinian access into the above areas has been entirely subject to Israel’s unilateral measures, which have become increasingly restrictive and dangerous … However, the main parameters of the access regime implemented by the Israeli military have since remained vague and unpredictable, including the precise boundaries of the restricted areas, the conditions under which access to these areas may be permitted or denied, and the consequences of prohibited entry”.

According to UN-OCHA, “The information presented [in the report] relies primarily on the observations of enforcement practices of the Israeli military in the relevant areas, made by the participants of interviews and focus groups carried out for this study. Figures and definitions provided here are, therefore, estimates produced for the purposes of this report and are not intended to be authoritative or definitive. Nonetheless, the rough boundaries of the restricted land and sea areas, were shared by OCHA in a meeting with the Israeli COGAT, and confirmed by the latter” …

Concerning the land restrictions, UN-OCHA says that “information collected through the interviews and focus groups consistently indicates that until November 2008, access restrictions were implemented in most areas within 300 meters from the fence. That month, following the collapse of the ceasefire (‘calm’) agreement between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli military began expanding the restricted area up to 1,000-1,500 meters … [1] The ‘no-go zone’ covers the area between zero to 500 meters from the fence, where access is totally prohibited and poses an extreme threat to life if entered. The Israeli army carries out incursions into this zone a number of times a week, during which land is levelled and any property found there is destroyed. [2] The ‘high risk zone’ covers the area located between 500 to 1,000-1,500 meters from the fence, depending on the area. Opening fire at people accessing this area, as well as land levelling and property destruction, are common and widespread practices; however, they are carried out irregularly and unpredictably … Participants of the interviews and focus groups indicated that incidents of warning fire and land levelling have occurred in areas beyond the 1,000-1,500 meters from the fence, and as far as 3,000 meters”.

And the incursions are frequent: “A typical incursion involves between four to ten military vehicles (tanks, bulldozers, military jeeps), frequently accompanied by helicopters, drones and heavy bursts of fire. During the first five months of 2010, OCHA recorded 72 incursions into the restricted areas, averaging over three every week”.

According to the UN-OCHA report, “the bulk of the structures that existed in these areas were destroyed after the expansion of the land restricted area since the end of 2008, and in their vast majority during the three weeks of the ‘Cast Lead’ offensive”.

There has also been [mainly unorganized] Palestinian military activity, the UN-OCHA report states: “Since the end of the ‘Cast Lead’ offensive, OCHA recorded the killing of four Israeli soldiers and the injury of another ten as a result of Palestinian fire in the vicinity of the fence”.

Concerning the restrictions on Gaza’s maritime space, UN-OCHA wrote: “Under the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Israel and the PLO, areas within 20 Nautical Miles (NM) off Gaza’s coast should be open to Palestinian use for fishing, recreation and economic activity. Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, there has been a progressive restriction of fishermen’s access to the sea. In 2002, Israel committed to allow fishing activities in sea areas up to 12 NM from shore (‘Bertini Commitment’); however this commitment was never implemented and more severe restrictions were imposed during most of the time subsequently … In mid-2006, Israel announced that fishing activities beyond 6 NM from shore were prohibited. Based on interviews and focus groups, the latest expansion of the restricted sea areas can be dated to late 2008, on the eve of the ‘Cast Lead’ offensive. Along most of Gaza’s coast, the restricted areas begin at 3 NM from shore. [In the north, Palestinians are totally prevented from accessing a 1.5 NM-wide strip along the maritime boundary with Israel, and a 1 NM-wide strip in the south, along the maritime boundary with Egypt, as established in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement.]  Overall, Palestinians are totally prevented from accessing 85 percent of the sea areas on which they are entitled to carry out maritime activities, including fishing, according to the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement. Similar to the restricted areas on land, Palestinian fishermen entering the restricted sea areas are regularly exposed to warning fire by Israeli naval forces, and in some cases, directly targeted”.

One of the effects, the report says, is that “restrictions prevent fishermen from accessing areas where more lucrative fish, such as grouper and red mullet, are found. While sardine continues to be the main type of fish within the total catch (about two thirds), the share of cheap ‘baby sardines’ increased … [in addition] the inability to access deeper sea areas has resulted in the overfishing of shallow coastal waters and the depletion of breeding grounds, threatening the future sustainability of fishing breeds”.

Overall, the UN-OCHA report said, “The civilian population affected by access restrictions imposed by the Israeli military suffers
from a systematic lack of respect for their basic rights, as enshrined in international humanitarian and human rights law. This situation stems from the methods used by the Israeli military to enforce these restrictions and discourage access to these areas, which has placed civilian lives at grave risk and resulted in the widespread loss of civilian property. Additional risk to life and property loss stems from military activities of Palestinian armed factions in the restricted areas and their exchanges with the Israeli military”.

It adds that IDF “warning shots” are fired daily.

UN-OCHA also reports that “Since the beginning of 2010 there has been an increasing number of shooting incidents affecting people collecting rubble and scrap metal in the restricted areas, resulting in the injury of 19. The number of people engaged in rubble collection has steadily increased, due to the growing demand for such materials by the recycling industry” — particularly as the punitive Israeli sanctions continue.

And, it states, “the Israeli military has consistently failed to provide the affected population with accurate information about the main parameters of the access regime being enforced, particularly in the farming areas, and to a lesser degree in the restricted fishing areas. Uncertainty and lack of clarity are high regarding the precise boundaries of the restricted areas, the conditions under which access to these areas may be allowed or denied, and the consequences of a prohibited entry. Regarding the boundaries, the Israeli military has failed to physically demarcate the restricted areas in any meaningful way, even though it carries out land incursions into the restricted areas 3-4 times every week and naval forces continuously patrol the coast.  Moreover, on at least one occasion, the Israeli military provided the affected population with clearly misleading information: in May 2009 the Israeli Air Force dropped thousands of leaflets along the affected areas warning people not to access areas closer than 300 meters from the fence; in reality however, access restrictions were and are being enforced on areas up to 1,000-1,500 metres from the fence. The lack of clarity and unpredictability associated
with this access regime makes it highly arbitrary, thus significantly increasing the level of risk”.

In a chilling, even terrifying, sidebar, UN-OCHA reported that “Shooting at people accessing restricted areas is often carried out from remotely-controlled weapon stations. These stations are deployed in secured pillboxes every several hundred meters along the fence, each containing machine guns protected by retractable armoured covers, whose fire can reach targets up to 1.5km. A team of all-female soldiers act as lookout staff of the operation rooms located at the battalions’ headquarters around Gaza. These soldiers identify potential targets and suggest them to their battalion commanders, who authorize whether the target is ‘incriminated’ or not, i.e. whether warning or direct fire can be opened at them. According to a recent report from the Israeli daily Haaretz, ‘the procedure to authorize opening fire is complex, but takes less than two minutes’. Actual fire is ultimately carried out by pressing a button, which opens the pillbox dome revealing the machine gun, and operating a joystick which allows the soldier to aim the weapon toward a designated target, guided by the images relayed from the field. The operator also draws upon images and information from ground sensors, aircrafts, and overhead drones, and is fed with real time audio of the target being struck: ‘This [the sound of the shots being fired] gives you the feeling of, ‘Wow, I’ve fired now” explained one twenty-year old operator. “It’s very alluring to be the one to do this. But not everyone wants this job. It’s no simple matter to take up a joystick like that of a Sony PlayStation and kill, but ultimately it’s for defense’.  Other military means are also used to enforce access restrictions to land, including airstrikes from unmanned drones and shooting from tanks. Ammunition used during the latter include ‘flechette’ projectiles, which explode in midair releasing thousands of 3.75 cm metal darts that disperse in a conical arch three hundred meters long and about ninety meters wide. During July 2010, a least 2 civilians were killed and 10 injured (including 4 children) by this type of ammunition”.

UN-OCHA notes that “Protecting the civilian population during armed conflicts is one of the main objectives of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The principle of distinction between combatants and military objectives and civilians and civilian objects is the cornerstone of this body of law and the source of more specific rules regulating the conduct of hostilities.  According to this principle, [1] It is absolutely prohibited to target civilians, regardless of the circumstances. When launching attacks, parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life and injury to civilians; [2] it is absolutely prohibited to target civilian objects (legitimate military targets are only those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action); [3] parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks; to the extent feasible, they must avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas”.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA, which fought in Israel’s Supreme Court against the imposition of Israeli military-administered sanctions in Gaza — saying they were collective punishment of 1.5 million human beings — and lost, has published a page of facts refuting claims made by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the situation is much improved since an “easing” of the sanctions regime in June 2010, here.

A translation of excerpts from arguments made in late April by the Israeli government against a new lawsuit that GISHA is pursuing in the Tel Aviv District Court against the military-administered sanctions in Gaza is posted here. In this document, the Israeli military makes a reference to Israel’s “obligations towards the Gaza Strip concerning safeguarding the essential humanitarian needs of the population”. The document states that most of the information requested by GISHA about the Israeli military-administered sanctions against Gaza must not be provided for reasons of state security, while a “red lines” document which discussed the minimum daily caloric requirement of residents of the Gaza Strip should not be revealed because it never formed the basis of state policy.

Then, on Thursday 7 October, GISHA reported that “After one and a half years of obstruction and denial, the State of Israel agreed this morning to make public three documents related to the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip prior to the flotilla incident, including a list of items allowed into Gaza, procedures for approving or rejecting goods, and a ‘monitoring system’ for checking stocks in Gaza. The concession came in a Tel Aviv District Court hearing on a Freedom of Information Act petition submitted by Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement demanding transparency for the Gaza closure policy … The state, however, refused today to reveal new documents which govern the current policy of goods transfer into Gaza following the May 31 flotilla incident … [And] the state’s attorney continued to refuse to release the document known as the ‘Red Lines’ document, in which the state apparently establishes the minimal caloric consumption required for the subsistence of the residents of the Gaza Strip … The state agreed to submit the documents to Gisha within 14 days, after which the court will rule on whether it must also reveal the ‘Red Lines’ document and the new procedures”.

Meanwhile, GISHA has been invited to make a presentation on the sanctions this week to Israel’s Turkel Commission looking into the Flotilla fiasco (on 31 May).

In a letter it sent to the Turkel Commission in August, GISHA said that “Israel’s policy regarding the passage of goods into the Gaza Strip [is] a policy which to this day is shrouded in secrecy … Gisha’s efforts to understand and expose Israel’s closure policy towards the Gaza Strip have raised fundamental questions about the goals of the comprehensive closure and the ways it has been implemented. Answering these questions is vital to understanding the essence of the naval closure and has critical implications for the legal analysis of the issue … Until 2007, Israel declared that the restrictions it imposed on the import of goods into Gaza derived from security considerations, whether threats against the border crossings themselves or security considerations deriving from the nature of the goods entering (namely, war matériel or ‘dual use’ goods that have civilian uses but could also serve military purposes). What enabled Israel to enforce its restrictions on movement is its almost absolute control of the borders of the Gaza Strip: complete control of the land crossings between Israel and Gaza, absolute control of the airspace and territorial waters and indirect but substantial control of the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt (until the recent opening of Rafah following the flotilla events). As to Israel’s control of the naval space of the Gaza Strip, it is important to stress that over the years since the disengagement, Israel has maintained its control of the Gaza Strip’s territorial waters and prevented travel to and from it. Israel even restricted the movement of fishermen, limiting it to three nautical miles, and at certain times forbidding fishermen’s access to the sea completely. It did this even though the Oslo Accords said that fishing would be allowed up to 20 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza, and even though in the ‘Bertini Commitment’ of August 2002, Israel promised to allow fishing for up to 12 nautical miles. The naval blockade Israel declared in January 2009, then, did not actually change anything in terms of the Gaza Strip’s access to the territorial waters off its shores. After Hamas seized internal control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel closed the land crossings to the Strip and left only very limited passage for goods and people. At first Israel justified the closure with security pretexts and declared that in the absence of security officials loyal to the Palestinian Authority on the Gaza side of the crossings it could not allow the opening of Karni Crossing, Gaza’s commercial lifeline, or the passenger terminal in Rafah. But beginning in September 2007, Israel declared publicly that it was going to restrict the movement of goods into and out of Gaza not only in order to defend itself against the threat that such goods could pose to Israel’s security, but also as part of its policy of applying ‘pressure’ or ‘sanctions’ against the Hamas government. On September 19, 2007 the Security Cabinet approved a resolution openly calling to restrict the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip to the ‘humanitarian minimum’, in response to the firing of Qassam rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel. In November 2007, as part of a response to a petition challenging the restrictions on the transfer of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip (HCJ 9132/07 Al-Bassiouni v. Prime Minister, submitted by Gisha and nine other Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations), lawyers for the state argued that the restrictions constitute ‘economic warfare’, whose purpose is to weaken the Gaza economy as part of Israel’s war against the Hamas regime. In other words, according to the state’s response, Israel restricts the entrance of civilian goods that do not pose any security threat in and of themselves, with the declared goal of paralyzing the economy in Gaza and exerting pressure on the civilian population, without, it claimed, causing a ‘humanitarian crisis’. According to the State Attorney’s Office: ‘Harming the economy itself is a legitimate means of warfare and a relevant consideration even when deciding on allowing in relief consignments’ … References by senior security officials to the closure policy attested even more clearly to Israel’s conscious use of its control of the borders to pressure the civilian population of Gaza and through it Hamas, who even connected the policy to negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit. Therefore, the closure is based not only on security considerations but is also a declared attempt to hurt the civilian population by restricting its movement, cutting its income, reducing its resources and impinging on its daily life, with the goal of pressuring the Hamas regime. The naval closure was part of that policy from its first day, and the declaration of the naval blockade in January 2009, as mentioned, changed nothing. Therefore, the questions that should be asked about the naval closure are the same questions that should be asked about the closure in general. First among them is the need to question whether a policy of a tight and continuing closure of a civilian population of 1.5 million people – all in order to pressure it to stop activities for which it is not responsible and to change political circumstances that are beyond its control – is a legitimate and reasonable policy. Following the cabinet decision from September 2007, Israel began forbidding the entry of goods that are not considered ‘vital for the survival of the civilian population’, and thereby halted exports, economic activity and manufacturing and prevented the passage of items it considers to be ‘”luxuries’ … but at no time did Israel publish lists of goods whose entry into Gaza was ‘permitted’ or ‘prohibited’, and it has also refused to reveal the criteria that guided its decision about which goods to allow into the Gaza Strip and which to bar … In the absence of official information, Gisha created a list of permitted and prohibited items, based on the experience of Palestinian and Israeli merchants, international organizations and the Palestinian coordination committee: these parties learn what is prohibited or permitted from the answers they receive from COGAT to their requests to transfer merchandise into the Gaza Strip … Statements by the government and security officials also attest that even the entry of food products was restricted to ‘basic products’, as they called them. Thus, after the military operation in January 2009 and following international pressure to ease the closure, on March 22, 2009 the government made the following decision: ‘The Government of Israel has instructed the authorities dealing with the matter to enable the entry – without restriction – of foodstuffs to the residents of Gaza from all relevant sources, after it has been verified that they are indeed foodstuffs, and this in the framework of humanitarian efforts. The Government directs that the foregoing be scrupulously implemented’. Despite the clear language of the decision, it was never implemented. What, then, guided Israel’s policy regarding the closure of Gaza that was in force before and during the flotilla events? Why did security officials allow the entry of parsley while forbidding coriander? What are the considerations and criteria by which COGAT acted? What allowed it to establish on a daily basis what would go into Gaza and what would remain in the customs warehouses at the Ashdod port or Ben Gurion Airport? And how are those considerations related to the Prime Minister’s statement after the flotilla events that the closure was imposed for security reasons only? … In light of the aforementioned, questions arise as to Israel’s monitoring and supervision of the consequences of the closure. For example, one must ask how Israel determined the ‘humanitarian minimum’ required for the survival of the population. How did it ascertain that the population received what it needed? How did it check whether there was a ‘crisis’ and by what indexes? How has the prolongation of the closure affected its characteristics … we think that these and
other questions that arise from the aforementioned and the attached documents are vital for understanding the policy of the closure, its motives and its characteristics, and are therefore necessary for the analysis of the naval closure in its appropriate context”.

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