(By Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch)
(Jerusalem) – The Israeli military should immediately stop shooting at Palestinian civilians inside Gaza. Israeli military forces have killed 4 and wounded more than 60 civilians near the perimeter fence with Gaza since the beginning of 2014, according to UN figures. There have been no reports of armed Palestinian fighters shot in the same areas this year.
Human Rights Watch investigated seven incidents between January 2 and March 1, in which Israeli forces shot civilians in the vicinity of the fence. Four were killed, including a high school student on a picnic and a woman with an intellectual disability who was lost. Five others were wounded, including two journalists and two demonstrators planting olive trees, none of whom posed a threat to the soldiers or others. The Israeli military has not claimed that any of the victims in the seven cases were engaged in military operations or that armed groups were in the area when the shooting occurred.
“Month after month, Israeli forces have wounded and killed unarmed Palestinians who did nothing but cross an invisible, shifting line that Israel has drawn inside Gaza’s perimeter,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s appalling that soldiers have shot men, women, and children apparently for simply crossing a line.”
The Israeli military has issued directives prohibiting any Palestinian presence on land within Gaza abutting the territory’s perimeter fence, currently up to 300 meters from the fence, but Israeli forces have frequently shot at Palestinians beyond that distance. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that Israeli forces’ use of live ammunition has placed up to 35 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land off-limits to farmers. Palestinians living in the densely inhabited Gaza Strip use land near the fence with Israel for agriculture, collecting rubble, scrap metal, and other reusable materials, and recreation.
In areas near the Gaza perimeter, Israeli forceskilled 5 Palestinian civilians and wounded 60 others in 2013, according to the UN Office of the HighCommissioner for Human Rights. So far in 2014, Israeli forces have killed 4 civilians and wounded more than 60 in those areas, mostly protesters demonstrating against Israel’s restrictions on access to farmland near the perimeter fence.
In situations in which military forces are playing a policing or law-enforcement role, international human rights law applies; in such circumstances, lethal force may only be used when strictly necessary to prevent an imminent threat to life. Israeli soldiers do not face an imminent lethal threat from unarmed Palestinian civilians in areas of Gaza near the perimeter fence.
In violation of international humanitarian law (or the laws of war) which prohibits attacks on civilians, Israeli soldiers have repeatedly shot at civilians near the fence on the Palestinian side.
Under the laws of war, attacks may only be directed at military objectives, such as enemy combatants. Forces must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives, and if there is doubt, must cancel the attack. While civilians who take a direct part in hostilities are subject to attack, merely entering a prohibited area does not meet that requirement. Military personnel who willfully kill civilians are committing a war crime.
On February 28, Israeli soldiers shot Amina Qdeih, a 58-year-old woman with an intellectual disability, who got lost while walking home from a wedding party. Her relatives heard shooting near the perimeter fence late at night, but because of fears of attack by Israeli drones overhead, they did not find her body until 6 a.m. the next morning. A hospital report said she had a gunshot wound to her abdomen and died of blood loss.
On February 13, Israeli forces fatally shot 35-year-old Ibrahim Mansour in the head while he and others collected rubble for building material several hundred meters from the perimeter fence. A witness told Human Rights Watch that an Israeli military vehicle fired teargas at four apparently unarmed men, who then fled. When Mansour and others who had taken cover resumed working, Israeli forces fired at them with live ammunition, killing Mansour and wounding another worker as they tried to run away.
Israeli forces shot and killed Bilal Oweidah, 19, on January 24, near the perimeter fence when he was taking photographs of deer while on an outing with friends. On January 2, Israeli forces shot and killed Adnan Abu Khater, 16, while he was picnicking about 600 meters from the fence with a group of high school friends to celebrate finishing their exams. Witnesses in both cases told Human Rights Watch that all the men and students were unarmed.
In other cases, Israeli forces shot and wounded Palestinian civilians taking part in protests inside Gaza against Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to farmland near the perimeter, and journalists covering the protests. On February 25, Israeli forces wounded Nasser Rahman, a 24-year-old journalist covering a demonstration, hitting him in the kneecap. On January 17, Israeli forces shot and wounded two Palestinian men attempting to plant olive trees, and a journalist, during a protest near the fence. The three men told Human Rights Watch that some young people at the demonstration threw stones toward Israeli forces but that they were not near the stone throwers at the time.
After a truce in November 2012, the Israeli military stated that it would allow Palestinians to approach up to 100 meters of the perimeter. But in April 2013, an Israeli military spokesperson responded to a freedom of information request from Gisha, an Israeli rights group, saying that the no-go area extended to 300 meters from the fence. In the past several years, Israeli forces have often fired at Palestinians at greater distances.
From 2005 through 2013, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a nongovernmental group, submitted about two dozen complaints to the Israeli military asking officials to conduct criminal investigations into alleged killings and injuries in areas near Gaza’s land perimeter. The Israeli navy also imposes a blockade and limits Gazan boats to traveling no more than six nautical miles from shore.
The military has not opened any criminal investigations into their complaints, PCHR reported. As of December 31, “responses received from the [military] stated that the cases were closed because the victim had violated the access restrictions, or because the use of lethal force by the Israeli military was within its rules of engagement,” the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported.
Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have frequently launched rockets into Israel from areas near the perimeter fence – when directed at Israeli population centers, such attacks violate the laws of war prohibition against indiscriminate attacks. Israeli forces say they have discovered tunnels that armed Palestinian groups constructed from Gaza into Israel.
In February 2014, an Israeli military spokesperson told Ma’an News, a Palestinian news website, that Palestinian armed groups had detonated three explosive devices near Israeli soldiers patrolling the security fence since the beginning of the year; no one was injured. In December, members of a Palestinian armed group shot and killed an Israeli civilian contractor with the Israeli military while he was repairing the perimeter fence.
The Israeli security rationale of using lethal force to prevent Palestinian armed groups from engaging in military operations near the perimeter does not justify shooting civilians who are not taking active part in the hostilities, Human Rights Watch said. Many have been farmers on their land. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that in December 2013 Israeli forces opened fire 20 times from a watchtower on farmers from Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, as they tried to reach their agricultural lands. In the second half of 2013, Israeli forces shot and wounded six farmers while they were working at distances further than 300 meters from the perimeter fence, the UN office said.
The economy of the Gaza Strip has been severely harmed by Israel’s and Egypt’s border closures, with unemployment at almost 40 percent and more than 70 percent of the population receiving humanitarian assistance. Apart from the deaths and injuries, the practice of firing shots, including warning shots, at Gaza residents who approach the perimeter has deprived farmers of access to their agricultural lands, harming livelihoods.
Israeli military spokespeople and Palestinian witnesses both say that Israeli forces often fire warning shots in the air and then fire at the legs of people in Gaza near the perimeter fence before shooting to kill. While firing warning shots may reduce the likelihood of shooting a civilian, a failure to heed warning shots does not turn a civilian into a lawful military target. Civilians may not be targeted, even by shooting to wound. While law enforcement rules encourage warning shots and non-lethal use of force, it must be in proportion to the imminent risk faced.
“Shooting at civilians is not a lawful policy near Gaza’s perimeter fence or anywhere else,” Whitson said. “Israeli commanders need to change their policies and practices to abide by international law, not flaunt it.”
For more information on Israeli shootings near the perimeter fence with Gaza, please see below.
Gaza Perimeter Shooting Incidents
Amina Qdeih, about 58, whose family said she had an intellectual disability and had difficulty speaking, lived in Khuza’a, a town close to the Israeli perimeter fence in southeastern Gaza, east of Khan Yunis. On February 28, 2014, she and her relatives attended a cousin’s wedding party about 500 meters from home. “She left the wedding by herself, and must have got confused and lost,” her brother Mahmud, 63, told Human Rights Watch. “About two years ago she walked into town but people brought her back to us, but this was the first time she walked toward the fence.”
Her brother said that he became worried when it was getting late and she had not returned home. He and other family members alerted residents of Khuza’a that she was missing. “Then we heard shots fired, around 10 shots or maybe more, in a row. I wasn’t hopeful.”
Qdeih’s nephew, Ismail, told Human Rights Watch that about an hour after the family heard the gunfire, he got a phone call from someone who said he had seen a woman walking toward the fence, who might have been Qdeih, and that shots were fired and she might have been hit:
Then the [Palestinian] Red Crescent [ambulance] arrived and we could hear that they were calling on the radio to get coordination [with Israel for permission] to search the area. Eventually they searched and we joined the search, until around 2 a.m., but then we heard [Israeli] drones overhead and decided to leave. We took it as a warning [of a potential airstrike]. The next morning, at 6 a.m., a few of us went out and retraced the tracks of the ambulance, and got as close as we could to the fence. We found her [body] and brought her out.
Qdeih’s body was found near a small barbed-wire fence 30 meters on the Gaza side of the larger Israeli military perimeter fence, residents said.
Ma’an News reported that an Israeli army spokesperson confirmed that ”Israeli forces fired toward the lower extremities” of a person who approached the border fence east of Khan Younis on the night of February 28, after ordering the suspect to stop and firing warning shots into the air.
“She bled to death while we were searching for her,” her nephew said. A death certificate from a Gaza hospital, dated March 1, states that Qdeih, born in 1956, died from “bleeding due to a vein ruptured in her abdomen by one bullet.”
Residents of Khuza’a said that Israeli forces often fired at people who approached closer than 500 meters to the perimeter fence. “We are afraid to get even that close, though, because they will shoot at distances beyond 500 meters,” Ismail Qdeih said.
Israeli forces shot Ibrahim Mansour, 35, on February 13, when he was at least 200 meters from the Israeli perimeter fence in a former industrial area in the Homra neighborhood of Shajai’ya, east of Gaza City. Mansour’s family said he had been working each day for two months in the area, where he and other workers collected rubble and loaded it onto donkey carts to sell as building material.
“The money Ibrahim made from collecting rubble was his only income, enough to pay for our food,” his wife, Reem, 36, told Human Rights Watch. Mansour is survived by Reem and their seven children, ages 2 through 11. She and other family members had been to the area to cultivate land they rented, she said. “The Israeli soldiers know we’re there,” she said. “Sometimes the soldiers would drive by,” on a perimeter road on the other side of the fence, “and the workers run away and hide, then return later.”Mansour’s cousin Mohannad Mansour said. “The last time when the soldiers fired and the workers took it as a warning, was in late January. They would always leave before dusk anyway, to avoid suspicion. Usually if the soldiers did anything, it was firing teargas.”
There were scores of men working in the area, as usual, on the day soldiers shot Mansour,Rafeeq Khorkli, 21, a worker, told Human Rights Watch. Khorkli said he had been working in the area for six weeks because there were no other jobs: “[Israeli military vehicles] would sometimes drive by and shoot a warning shot or fire teargas, but then leave.” Khorkli said that on February 13 at about 2:30 p.m. he saw four unarmed men in their mid-20s, who were not workers, approach the fence:
That’s when the [Israeli miltary vehicle] arrived. The [four] guys left, and we thought the army had left too, and so we returned to work. Ibrahim was behind me, and my brother was in front of us, closer to the fence. There were shots around our feet, and I turned to run, and I got shot in the leg, but it was not a bad wound. That’s when Ibrahim was hit. When I got hit, I turned around to look for Ibrahim and didn’t see him, but I thought he had hidden. My brother saw him. We turned him over and there was blood on the ground. He was far away from the fence, a few hundred meters. I called my dad, and the ambulance. My dad sent two cars for us, and we drove and met up with the ambulance. He died in al-Shifa [hospital, in Gaza City].
An Israeli military spokesperson said that soldiers fired on the “main instigator” of a group of men who had approached and tampered with the perimeter fence, after first using other unspecified means to disperse them, according to a Ma’an News report on February 13.
A hospital autopsy report conducted on the date of his death stated that Mansour’s head had a serrated bullet entry wound, brain tissue damage, and multiple fractures of the skull at the bullet’s exit point.
In a similar incident, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem reported that Israeli forces shot `Odeh Hamad in the head at about 3:20 p.m. on December 20, 2013, while he was working with his brother at the Beit Hanoun garbage dump, near the perimeter fence, to collect scraps of plastic and metal for resale. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that Hamad was within 100 meters of the fence, on open ground, at the time.
Adnan Abu Khater
Israeli forces shot Adnan Abu Khater, 16, on January 2 near the perimeter fence east of Jabalia, in the Masaha area, where he and nine classmates from his secondary school went on a picnic after finishing their exams. One of the students, Abu Khater’s cousin Muhammad, 17, told Human Rights Watch that they chose to go “for a trip there, because there is nice scenery. We brought some food: falafel, avocados, and eggs.” The shooting occurred about 11:30 a.m.:
We were on a hill, hundreds of meters away from the fence. We weren’t throwing stones or anything, and there were no “jeeps” [a common term for military Hummers] or drones in the area. A [military] Hummer drove up to the fence, a soldier stepped out, and shot at us. He shot four times. I knew he was shooting at us because the sand flew up around us. We hid behind the hill. The Hummer left, the shooting stopped, and we broke up into smaller groups and started to leave. I was walking in front. Adnan was in a group with two others, behind me, when he was shot.
Ayman Abu Sido, a truck driver who was delivering cooking gas tanks to homes in the area, told Human Rights Watch that he was sitting down to eat lunch nearby when Abu Khater was shot:
I had arrived before the kids did. Kids often go to that area for fun, but we heard the shots and we took it as a warning. After the [Israeli military] jeep left, they were leaving too – we all were starting to leave. Adnan was walking last in the group, and then he was shot.
Muhammad Abu Khater said that he and one of their classmates went back and dragged his cousin for several hundred meters further away from the fence, “moving in a zig-zag because they kept shooting at us.” Muhammad said Adnan, shot above the hip, was bleeding. “It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive,” he said. “They tried to remove the bullet immediately but one of the doctors said it had fragmented and wounded his pelvis, stomach, and colon.”
The ambulance arrived at Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya at about 12:30 p.m., and from there Abu Khater was transferred to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, his family said. After operating on him, doctors obtained Israeli military approval to transfer Abu Khater to an Israeli hospital via the Erez border crossing, his family said. His mother, Um Muhammad, told Human Rights Watch:
He needed 18 blood bags during the operation, the bullet had severed an artery and [damaged] his colon. The doctor said we needed to send him to an Israeli hospital and I was chosen to go with him. We left in an ambulance with a doctor and a nurse. At the [Erez] crossing they moved him onto a stretcher and an open flatbed jeep, with a man from the Red Cross holding his IV [drip]. The guards searched me and Adnan was taken to a clinic. Fifteen minutes later they told me he was in an operation, and then another 15 and they told me he was dead.
According to a medical report from al-Shifa hospital, Abu Khater was dead on arrival when he was returned from Erez at 5 a.m. on January 3, from a gunshot wound. A death certificate, dated January 6, states that he died as a result of a ruptured vein in the abdomen, due to a bullet that also damaged his pelvis.
Bilal Oweidah, 20, an unemployed carpenter, went to property owned by a relative near the Gaza perimeter fence north of Beit Lahia at about 3 p.m. on January 24, along with a family friend and his cousin, Akram Oweidah, 21. Akram told Human Rights Watch that the friends “usually go there every other Friday. It’s a beautiful area, and comparatively calm, unlike some other places” near the perimeter where Palestinians occasionally hold protests. The group rarely approached the perimeter fence because ”there are usually [Israeli military] patrols in the area, tanks, or jeeps,” he said. “But this time it was empty.We did not see any forces.”
He said that when he and Bilal arrived in the area, they saw four Palestinians about seven meters from the perimeter fence on the Gaza side, taking photographs of deer on the Israeli side of the fence:
We saw the deer and Bilal called to me to come closer and take pictures with him. We weren’t carrying anything, just our cell phones that we took pictures with. Bilal, I, and our friend, Nour, walked down toward the fence where the other four people were, and nothing happened. Suddenly we heard a shot, and all of us ran. I ran with Bilal, for maybe five meters, and then he called out, “I’m hit!” I said, “Are you joking?” and then saw him start falling over, slowly. I went back and turned him over. His chest and the ground were bloody. It was one shot to the chest, he had no other injuries. He blinked twice, three times, and his soul left him. It must have been a sniper, someone shooting from far away, because we didn’t see any soldiers.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were no Palestinian armed groups in the area, and the bullets appeared to have been fired from the Israeli side of the fence. Bilal Oweidahwas shot at about 3:45 p.m., Akram Oweidahsaid. Akram and two others carried Bilal away from the border area to a car and drove him to a hospital. A medical report from Kamal Odwan hospital states that Bilal Oweidah was dead on arrival from a bullet entry wound to the chest, with no exit wound.
The Israeli military did not comment on the shooting of Oweidah. In a separate incident on January 24, the military said its forces shot at two Palestinians protesting near the perimeter fence north of Jabalia, a different area in northern Gaza, according to news reports.
Nasser Rahman, 24, a journalist and photographer, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces shot him on February 25 while he was covering a demonstration, organized by a group called Intifada Youth to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the killing by an Israeli settler of 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. The demonstration began at around 1 p.m. in an area near Nahal Oz, a former crossing point in the Israeli perimeter fence for imports and exports, which Israel has closed. Rahman said he was about 50 or 60 meters away from the fence when soldiers shot him, at about 1:30 p.m.:
I was there to take photos of the event. I didn’t have a flak jacket with ”PRESS” markings, but I had my camera, so it was obvious that I was not throwing anything. I had deliberately positioned myself on the side of the group, away from the stone throwing, so as not to be shot. A soldier had left his [military vehicle], and I saw him take aim at a group of youths.
Rahman said he was holding a small mirror and tried to shine light at the soldier’s eyes to distract him and prevent him from shooting at the group:
I saw him look at me. He must have thought I was taunting him, and he shot. There was no warning shot, no gas canister, no rubber bullet. A first shot missed me, and then just seconds later a bullet hit me in the knee. I didn’t have time to run, but I had started to turn around to run away, so the second bullet hit my knee from the side, not straight on. I fell down, and as the others tried to reach me, [the soldiers] started shooting a lot of [tear] gas canisters toward us. One of the canisters landed near my head. Finally two guys came and carried me away. I was taken to the Wafa hospital and immediately transferred in an ambulance to al-Shifa [hospital, in Gaza City].
Rahman, who was wearing a cast when Human Rights Watch spoke with him on March 24, said the bullet caused a 5-centimeter-wide exit wound.
Moaz Abu Ghbeit
On the afternoon of January 24, several dozen Palestinian men and children participated in a protest against Israeli restrictions on access to land close to the perimeter fence in an area east of a cemetery outside Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli military spokesperson’s statement and Palestinian witnesses said that protesters threw rocks at Israeli soldiers on the other side. The Israeli military spokesperson told Ma’an News that Israeli forces fired warning shots in the air before shooting “toward the main two instigators.”
Moaz Abu Ghbeit, 18, said he was not near the perimeter fence when Israeli forces shot him. Abu Ghbeit told Human Rights Watch that, being unemployed, he was “bored and decided to go see the protest” that afternoon:
There were some guys who were right next to the fence, but I was standing on a hill at least 200 meters away with some of my friends. I wasn’t carrying anything. We didn’t see any soldiers, so I don’t know who shot me, maybe a sniper or a gun in a watchtower. There were no obstructions. It was open ground, so they could see me.
The bullet entered Abu Ghbeit’s right knee and exited through his hip, causing a five-centimeter-wide exit wound and nerve damage. “I fainted and woke up in the hospital,” he said. “I had lost lots of blood. The doctor said part of the bullet had fragmented inside me. I was operated on for nerve damage and was in the hospital for nine days.” He said he would need a second operation to remove the other fragments.
The Palestinian rights group al-Mezan reported that during the incident, Israeli forces also injured four men with rubber-coated metal bullets, and that doctors treated a 22-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy for teargas inhalation.
Majed Abu Salama, Hammad Ashour, and Khaled al-Sabbah
On the afternoon of January 19, Israeli forces shot and wounded three Gaza residents near the perimeter fence east of Gaza City during a protest against the Israeli military’s perimeter fence policies. The three men were part of a group of several hundred people who met at 12:30 p.m. in the Shaja’iya neighborhood and walked east, past the neighborhood police station, toward the former Nahal Oz crossing-point in the perimeter fence.
At about 3 p.m., Israeli forces shot Majed Abu Salama, a youth activist who had helped organize the demonstration. He told Human Rights Watch:
We had brought more than 100 small olive trees with us, one per person, to plant on the land. The land there belongs to Ismail al-Arayir, a farmer, who gave us permission to plant on it, since he can’t access it due to the [Israeli] army. We planted about 50 of the olive trees when I was shot. I was the first to be shot, in my right lower leg, when I was about 100 meters from the fence. I went to plant an olive tree and they planted a bullet in my leg. People carried me away and I went to the hospital.
The three men, interviewed separately, said that the demonstration posed no threat to Israeli forces. “Some guys managed to put the Palestinian flag on the fence, and there were a few kids throwing stones at the fence but they were far away from us, maybe 150 meters, when we were shot,” Abu Salama said.
Hammad Ashour, 21, a student at al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said that Israeli forces shot him soon after Abu Salama was shot:
We didn’t expect live fire, at most we thought there would be teargas, but even that – there was so much more gas than we expected. We stopped walking toward the fence when they started firing [teargas], and then there was a pause, so we moved forward again, and they started shooting [live ammunition]. The bullets were striking by our feet. I was about 100 meters from the fence when I heard someone had been shot. It was Majed [Abu Salama]. I turned around to look, and then I was shot and I fell in a hole. People picked me up and carried me for about 400 meters to a tuk-tuk [a three-wheel motor vehicle]. There was so much gas, from the canisters, that the people carrying me fell down. The gas canisters were falling up to 500 meters from the fence. I was hit twice, in my right knee. The bullets went right through. At the hospital they took arteries from my left leg and replaced those in my right.
Khaled al-Sabbah, 20, a freelance photojournalist, was taking photographs of Ashour when he came under fire. He told Human Rights Watch:
I was there to cover the event. None of the demonstrators had weapons of any kind. I was wearing a Kevlar vest, with “PRESS” printed on it. The teargas [canisters] started landing at 400 meters from the fence, and I remember one canister reached the ambulance, which was 500 meters away. They started shooting live fire at the guys planting olive trees a few hundred meters from the fence. There was a lot of firing [of bullets], aimed around our feet, and the [tear] gas shelling was continuous. I was taking pictures of Ashour, who had been shot and fallen into a hole. They were firing gas intensely while people were trying to carry Ashour away. I was on the ground taking pictures, not standing up, when I was shot in the chest. The vest protected me. I saw the dent and stood up, then I felt pain in my chest from the impact, and fell down. The pain and the gas were too much for me and I fainted. I woke up in the hospital.
Al-Sabbah said that the bullet bruised his chest, and that he had been hospitalized three times since the protest due to “difficulty breathing,” which he said was the result of the substantial amount of teargas he inhaled.
Mirrored from Human Rights Watch