3. Gaza 2108 – (a) The Ground War: Tactics and Casualties

Violence was expected from both sides though the demonstrations were dubbed “peaceful” by the Palestinians. Between the 23rd and the 28th of March, three infiltrators from Gaza had been caught and arrested by the IDF, but it appears that those caught were simply sneaking into Israel to find work; though they had weapons and fence cutters on them, they sought to be and were arrested 12 miles inside Israel. The first clashes took place on 29 March, the day before “Land Day” on 30 March when the first demonstrations were planned and at least 100,000 demonstrators were expected to show up, even though the original goal had been one million. Two Palestinians near the discontinued Karni crossing were captured near the security fence trying to set fire to army engineering equipment.

By 30 March, however, five different tent camps were set up at Rafah and Khan Younis in the south, el-Bureij and Gaza City in the centre, and Jabalya in the northern portion of Gaza. Israel anticipated that as many as 50,000 would demonstrate. Perhaps as many as 30,000 did the first day and 35,000 or even as many as 40,000 on the last day, but the totals never reached 50,000 let alone the target of 100,000 or the imagined one million. On other than the first and last Fridays, the total number of demonstrators and militants numbered about 10,000 each time. Further, the vast majority of those participating kept 300 or more metres from the border and did not engage in violence or attack the fence. They did not cross into the no-go zone pronounced by Israel. (I will deal with those who engaged in an air war in tomorrow’s blog.)

The fact that the overwhelming number of Gazans did not engage militarily or enter the 300 metre no-go zone was true even when, in the fourth week of protests, eight tents in the Malaka zone were moved to 300 metres from the fence. The vast majority of those who stayed 300 metres away or more neither sought martyrdom by attacking the fence nor aimed to harm or kill Israelis.

By and large, the estimates by both sides of those killed seemed to vary little. However, the numbers claimed to be injured varied enormously. 18 Palestinians were killed in the March 30th “demonstrations.” One died 7 days later. For example, two armed Palestinians with AK-47s and hand grenades were shot dead after exchanging fire with Israeli troops. Israel claimed that 7 were Hamas militants, though Hamas confirmed that only 5 were. Others killed included a global jihadist and a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade accounting for 50% of those killed. Another killed was holding a torch but running away from the fence at the time he was shot and another simply smoking and standing behind stone throwers behind a hillock. Another, Gazans claimed, was a farmer ploughing close to the fence; the IDF said they shot him because they expected that he was planting an explosive device.

During the following week, demonstrations diminished in size. Nevertheless, almost on a daily basis, militants were killed. On the 1st of April and the first day of Passover, 4 Palestinians wearing masks and carrying Molotov cocktails cut through the southern security fence and reached Kibbutz Kissufim where they were captured before they could set fire to equipment used to destroy Hamad tunnels. They were not injured or killed. On the 2nd of April, one Palestinian was killed after setting fire to a tire and rolling it towards the fence. Another was shot on the 3rd who broke open the fence, and another armed Palestinian on 5 April who approached the fence.

A week after the Land Day demonstrations, the Palestinians returned to large demonstrations on 6 April. 9 more Palestinians were killed and scores more, such as 20-year-old Mohammed Ashour, were wounded. One of those shot who died the next day was Yasser Murtaja, a thirty-year-old Palestinian cameraman for Palestinian Aid Media. Murtaja was shot in the southern Gaza town of Khuzaa, but when he was only 100 metres from the fence. He was wearing the flak jacket clearly marked “Press,” but the area was engulfed in black smoke as a result of the burning tires set alight by militants. Further, the IDF claimed that he was a Hamas operative.

A press release issued by the IDF claimed that the Israeli military “does not intentionally target journalists and that it would look into the circumstances of the shooting.” However, those killed were shot in the head or upper body. The indications seemed to be that they were targeted by Israeli snipers to be killed and not just maimed. As an IDF spokesperson tweeted, before he subsequently deleted the tweet, possibly because of inquiries about killing an unarmed Palestinian running away from the fence: “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”

Yasser Murtaja was not the only journalist killed. Ahmed Abu Hussein aged 24 who worked for Gaza’s Al-Shaab radio station, the Voice of the People Radio in Jabalia, also was killed. He was wounded on 13 April and died from his wounds two weeks later in Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel where he had been transferred when his wounds could not be treated adequately by the Gazan limited medical facilities at the Indonesian Hospital in Jabalia or even the much better hospital in the West Bank, the Palestinian Medical Compound in Ramallah to which he was first transferred. Some reports suggested that he was actually shot by a Hamas operative since he was most likely a member of the even more militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The latter claim – not the one that he was shot by a Hamas member seemed to be substantiated when the PFLP website posted notice of his death and referred to him as a “shaheed” (“shahid”), a martyr to the Islamic faith. Further, Voice of the People is a PFLP radio station. Even though working for a radio station, he allegedly flew drones to gather information for the militants as well as to take pictures of both the militant actions as well as the peaceful demonstrations.

Members of the Palestinian press did wear flack jackets clearly marked “Press.” To get the best pictures, they also went into the Israeli designated no-go zone within 300 metres of the fence. Using drones, they may also have been gathering evidence both on the military positions of the Israelis and for the charges against Israel that they planned to take on the ground.

It is not clear why some were targeted for killing and others targeted only to be injured. Israel’s B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, the Anadolu Agency and Amnesty International all pronounced the use of force with intent to kill excessive and disproportionate to the threat. (See the separate blog on Human Rights in Gaza and Israel.)

According to both sides, under the cover of smoke from burning tires, scores of demonstrators broke away from the main peaceful body and approached the fence in spite of prior warnings by Israel that if they did, they would be met by lethal force. They were. Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar appeared at the main demonstration later and pronounced to cheers that the great move towards the fence to breach the borders was coming so that they all could pray at al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas repeatedly in the past, and continued during this phase of conflict, to set fire to the Kerem Shalom crossing through which humanitarian supplies enter Gaza.

Large demonstrations took place on 13, 20, 27 April and the 4th and 11th of May. The following figures suggest the scale of the demonstrations, the loss of life and the wounded, the latter including only those hit by live ammunition. Those killed by their own side, such as the four Palestinians who accidently blew themselves up on 14 April, are not included. Those who died during the previous week are included in the Friday totals.

Date            Size           Dead    Wounded              Comments

13 April       10,000          3           223         the dead included 1 journalist                                    20 April       10,000           5          48-90       including a 14-yr.-old                                 27April       10,000           5           174         12 crossed the barbed wire fence & reched the                                                                               electrified fence                                                            4 May          10,000             5             82         the wind blew tear gas on demonstrators               11 May       15,000             4             ?

On 14 May, the Nakba Day Protests, held one day before 15 May to correspond to the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, the situation changed dramatically. 35,000 demonstrators showed up. As indicated in earlier blogs, 62 were killed, 53 named by Israel as known militants. Perhaps 500 were wounded. Those killed now totalled about 110; the UN reported that 104 had been killed, 2 dozen between the ages of 14-16. One 14-year-old was a girl, Wisal Sheikh Khalil, who was trying to cut through the security fence with wire cutters. Over 1,000 had by then been hit by live ammunition. IDF press releases were contradictory, some claiming that the snipers hit where intended while others said that no shots aimed to kill. The latter claim is simply not credible, but many were killed because the smoke from the tire fires obscured the vision of the snipers.

Both sides used sand berms or earthen embankments, the Palestinians locating them 300 metres beyond the fence and beyond the red line within which Israel promised to use live ammunition. Israeli snipers (about 100), infantry and tanks were located on the Israeli side behind embankments. What is clear is that there were three parts to the Palestinian demonstrations – the vast majority located 500-700 metres from the fence, some delivering medical services. Most journalists were generally located behind the embankments about 300 metres from the fence. A second group, usually young militants across the red line, participated in stone throwing. Third, small groups of militants tried to reach or get through the fence. The latter never exceeded 10% of the total number of demonstrators. But they were sitting ducks for Israeli snipers, despite the smoke given off by burning tires. Martyrdom seemed to be an integral part of the Palestinian protest.

It also seems clear that, although the Israeli armed forces did contain the militants and largely prevented their entry into Israel, and suffered only one soldier wounded, Israel seems also to have significantly lost the war for international public opinion. Some blame this on the public relations ineptitude of the IDF. But the IDF is faced with a dilemma. If journalists are allowed within 2 miles of the fence on the Israeli side, the problem is not that they are at significant personal physical risk, as Israel often insists, but that they gain clear access to the tactics of the Israeli army in countering the Palestinian demonstrations and attacks on the border.

The war did not stop on 14 May. But the demonstrations have. There have been a small number of militant incidents since. For example, on 27 May a bomb was placed next to the fence. Israeli tanks blew up a Palestinian observation post and killed three Gazans in response. However, the main thrust of the war has shifted, not to the sky war, which I will sum up tomorrow, but to a planned sea confrontation.


With the help of Alex Zisman




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