Israel’s ‘shooting routine’ on Gaza border

Israel must re-examine the army’s open-fire orders that result in Palestinians shot to death during Friday protests near the Gaza border; one such gunshot killed Gaza volunteer paramedic Rouzan al-Najjar in 2018.

al-monitor Volunteer paramedic Rouzan al-Najjar tends to a wounded protester last year at some point before her death. Posted Jan. 1, 2019. Photo by Twitter/@cpt_intl.

Jan 7, 2019

The extremely detailed investigation by David Halbfinger in The New York Times on the killing of Rouzan al-Najjar on June 1, 2018, at the Gaza border, requires Israel to reconsider our conduct toward the Palestinian protesters on the other side of the fence. This is the most important newspaper in the world, a reporter sent to Israel who could not be characterized as hostile to us, and an investigation that is dispassionate and careful in its conclusions.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli snipers; these included 60 to 70 who were not the targets of fire as of August, a senior official of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told the newspaper. 

Officials must not allow this system to continue with the Friday routine, where, even on days of relative calm, at least one or two youths are killed by our forces’ fire.

The case involves a 20-year-old woman wearing a white paramedic's lab coat whose death by IDF fire was found to have come from a distance where it was clear that she was a paramedic; this is not the typical story of a Hamas activist. She was the daughter of a family of Palestinian refugees from Kefar Salamah near Jaffa in the center of Israel. Aside from a visit to Egypt when she was 3, she never left the Gaza Strip and grew up in that big prison.

At 15 she experienced a trauma. For some reason, her beloved aunt was ostracized by her family. One day, at the kitchen from which they exiled her, a terrible fight broke out between her pregnant aunt and her grandmother; the grandmother pushed her daughter, and she fell down the stairs, until she reached the bottom dead. The fetus died as well. Only Najjar was a witness to this terrible incident and she decided to testify. She said to her family that in her eyes justice is more important than family ties. Her testimony caused her grandmother to stand trial and serve a year in jail.

Najjar became a symbol of bravery, and became known far and wide. The Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza caused her to express her opinions on social media on how the collective punishment of residents of the crowded Gaza Strip is wrong. When the protests began at the fence, she found herself standing alongside the protesters, among the medical staff, although she was not a certified nurse. Her dream was to go to nursing school.

She knew that joining the protesters carries significant risk, but she didn’t hesitate. She gave many interviews to the international press. “I am an army to myself, and a sword to my army,” she said to one of the newspapers, and became one of the unofficial spokeswomen of the fence protesters. Less than a month before she was killed she wrote on Facebook, “When my life ends, make me into a sweet memory”; two weeks before she died, she wrote her friend an apology in case she died, and asked for a beautiful prayer in her memory.

On the last Friday of her life, at 6:31 p.m., according to the investigation, the bullet that killed her was fired. The IDF’s claim was that the intention was not to shoot her but another man in a yellow shirt who approached the fence at the time. However, an analysis of photographs from the scene identifies such a man, wearing such a shirt, but that he was a far distance from the fence as well as from Najjar. One of the possibilities is that the bullet was indeed fired toward the man in yellow, and that a ricochet that skipped off the hard ground hit the young woman, who was behind him. It is not known which soldier fired the bullet that hit the paramedic.

The chief military prosecutor examined the incident and decided to transfer the investigation to the investigative military police. This was the second incident that was referred to such an investigation since the beginning of the demonstrations in March 2018. The matter is still under investigation.

The New York Times claims that the open-fire policies (which are not publicly revealed) allow shooting live fire at the Gaza Strip only in two instances: direct danger to IDF soldiers and an attempt to breach the fence separating the Gaza Strip and Israel. There’s no doubt that in Najjar’s case this didn’t happen.

The newspaper claims that the bullet that killed Najjar was fired from the rifle of an Israeli sniper into a crowd that included medical staff that was easily identifiable. The reconstruction of the event by means of video footage and photographs shows that there was no danger posed to soldiers from the medical staff. Even if there was no intent to kill any member of the medical staff, the Israeli fire — according to the newspaper — was careless in the best scenario and a war crime in the worst scenario.

The military says it did not keep photographs of the incident and therefore cannot verify the photographs obtained by the newspaper. Lt. Jonathan Conricus of the office of the IDF spokesperson cited in the investigation told his interviewer that defense of the border is a “complicated business” and that unfortunately accidents happen and unintended results occur.

Najjar, according to the author of the investigation, became a symbol of the struggle of the Palestinians in Gaza against Israel. She’s also a symbol, in their eyes, for the unending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and for the many lives that ended for naught, and too soon.

One does not have to agree with every word in the investigation of the most cautious newspaper in the world in order to read it, and it’s highly recommended that the top officers of the IDF bother to examine the article. It’s also recommended not to go down the path taken following the death of the child Muhammad al-Durrah at the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000; he was killed by a bullet while he was in his father’s arms. If someone tries to prove the full innocence of IDF soldiers by citing the analysis of some kind of angle, this won’t prevent this young woman from becoming the symbol of the Gaza protests and won’t convince the world that the IDF, in this instance, was forced to defend itself.

The many dozens of Palestinians that the IDF admits it did not intend to kill during the past nine months at the Gaza border demand that the open-fire policy be re-examined. The military police investigators of this specific case will certainly read the New York Times investigation, and must attend to it in their attempt to reach the truth. But the real answer won’t be reached by providing evidence regarding the killing of Najjar, but rather by drawing conclusions at the macro level following the many months that have passed since the beginning of the protests, in a creative effort not to continue in the routine of killing, and not to give the enemy "martyrs," who immediately become models for emulation.

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