Between the outbreak of the second intifada, in late September 2000, and the implementation of Israel's “disengagement plan” from the Gaza Strip on 11 September 2005, Israeli security forces killed at least 283 Palestinians near the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. At least 105 of those killed were civilians not taking part in hostilities. Between September 2005 and the end of September 2012, Israeli security forces killed 213 Palestinians near the fence. At least 154 of those killed were civilians not taking part in hostilities, among them 17 minors.
The large number of cases has given cause for concern that the army has classified broad swaths of land adjacent to the fence as a “no-go zone”, in which soldiers are allowed to open fire at anybody who enters, even if the person poses no threat. Army officials, among them the judge advocate general, Maj.-Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, have strongly denied any such order exists.
Despite this denial, in early 2010, the army disseminated leaflets in the Gaza Strip warning residents that it is forbidden to go within 300 meters of the fence, and that all means, including gunfire, will be used against persons who violate the prohibition. An announcement by the IDF Spokesperson, made on 28 April 2010, stated that, “The area next to the perimeter fence is a combat zone”.
The lax rules of engagement in these areas endanger farmers and residents who live nearby. The danger is especially great given that the area is not signposted, in breach of the High Court of Justice’s ruling that “special security areas” must be clearly marked. B'Tselem and other organizations have documented dozens of cases of army gunfire at persons who posed no threat and were much more than 300 meters from the fence (up to 1,500 meters). In many cases, no attempt was made to arrest the persons, and no warning was given before soldiers opened fire. Where warning was given, it was given only in Hebrew.
According to UN figures, the area of the formal no-go zones, together with the area in which entry effectively restricted due to a real risk of gunfire, covers 62.6 square kilometers, which amount to 17 percent of the total area of the Gaza Strip. The no-go zones affect 113,000 Palestinians (7.5 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip), causing harm to their homes, land, workplaces, and schools (seven schools are located in areas in which entry is restricted).
B'Tselem asked the IDF Spokesperson for clarifications on the borders of the no-go areas, the rules of engagement applying in the area, and the means used to prevent harm to innocent persons. In its response, dated 24 May 2010, the IDF Spokesperson provided a general and unsatisfactory statement claiming that the army’s policy results from the “fear of terrorist actions”.
Harm to agriculture
The area in which entry is dangerous – the space extending 1,500 meters from the perimeter fence – comprises about 35 percent of the land in the Gaza Strip that is suitable for farming. Closing these areas harms the income and routine of tens of thousands of farmers and their dependants.
In the past, the farmers in the area grew fruit trees and built greenhouses. Some of the land was used for grazing sheep and cattle for the production of meat. After the army destroyed much of the crops, many farmers chose to grow less labor-intensive crops that did not block the army’s field of vision. Common crops now being cultivated in the area do not require irrigation, such as wheat, barley, beans, and vegetables. Farmers working land there suffer, as do farmers throughout the Gaza Strip, from Israeli restrictions on marketing their produce.
According to UN figures, $308 million worth of property has been destroyed since 2005 in the area lying near the fence (this figure includes the damage caused during Operation Cast Lead). The destroyed property includes 18,000 dunams of fruit orchards, 5,800 dunams of greenhouses, about 1,000 residential dwellings, more than 300 wells, and six factories. The harm to crops and restrictions on access to land create a potential annual loss of 75,000 tons of agricultural produce, valued at $50 million. Non-cultivation of farmland in this area is liable to impoverish land resources and may even cause desertification of these areas in the future.
Harm to gravel gatherers
Another occupation that has developed in the Gaza Strip is the collection of fragments of buildings destroyed during Operation Cast Lead and from the Erez industrial area and settlements that were evacuated in the northern Gaza Strip in order to produce gravel. Some of these areas are classified as “no-go zones.” Salvaging these materials has become vital due to the harsh restrictions on entry of construction materials, and it has become a relatively profitable occupation (NIS 40-80 a day). B'Tselem’s investigation indicates that most persons engaged in this work are young; many are youths under the age of 18 who have left school to support their families.
Although the work is profitable, it is dangerous. B'Tselem and other human rights organizations have testimonies and video footage of dozens of instances in which soldiers have fired at and wounded Palestinian civilians working in areas near the perimeter fence.
In some of the cases, according to testimonies given to B'Tselem, the gravel gatherers were less that 300 meters from the fence, in an area the army has declared a closed military area. In other cases, the Palestinians were much further away, outside the prohibited area. Witnesses stated that they were given warnings in Hebrew, which some of the gravel gatherers did not understand. It was also contended that the army ordered them to leave within a few minutes but opened fire before the time expired. Some of the witnesses reported they were wounded, in most cases in the legs, others said warning shots were usually fired, and that their pack animals were shot.
Following the official declaration on prohibiting entry of Palestinians to the areas along the perimeter fence, the Popular Resistance Committees demonstrated for a few months against the army’s policy. The participants were from the area and from Palestinian organizations. In a number of instances, the demonstrators threw stones at army posts, but none of the demonstrators used weapons. The demonstrations began in Beit Lahiya in 2009. Then, in the first few months of 2010, they were held throughout the Gaza Strip, with activists from abroad taking part.
Testimonies given to B'Tselem indicate that in several cases, the army fired at demonstrators who approached the perimeter fence, even though the protestors did not did not pose a danger to the soldiers and did not try to cross the fence. For example, in a demonstration that took place on 24 April 2010, demonstrators tried to plant Palestinian flags about 50 meters from the fence. Soldiers opened fire, wounding three demonstrators. Video footage of a demonstration that took place on 28 April 2010 shows a group of demonstrators about 100 meters from the fence. They were throwing stones at soldiers on the other side of the fence. The soldiers opened live fire, killing one demonstrator, Ahmad Saliman Salem Dib, 19.
The sweeping declaration of extensive tracts of land, which provide a livelihood for thousands of persons, as an area into which soldiers are permitted to shoot at any person present there, even if they pose no threat whatsoever, is illegal. Firing at persons who do not endanger security forces or Israeli civilians breaches the primary principle of international humanitarian law – the obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Israel has the obligation to defend the border area and prevent hostile activity against Israel, but it must do so within the framework of the law, in a way that does not harm persons who do not threaten its security. Israel must change this policy immediately.