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From the field

Five Palestinians killed when Israeli military fired at protesters near Gaza perimeter fence, Dec. 2015-Jan. 2016

In at least four cases, the lethal gunfire was entirely unwarranted

In December 2015 and January 2016 soldiers killed five Palestinians near the Gaza perimeter fence while protests were underway in the area. In October and November of 2015, B’Tselem documented 14 instances in which Palestinians were killed under similar circumstances. B’Tselem’s inquiries show that the frequency, scope and distribution of demonstrations have decreased since its last report on the subject: demonstrations are mostly held on Fridays, though not every week, fewer people take part in them and they are usually not held adjacent to the fence itself.

Four of these recent incidents were investigated by B’Tselem field researchers in Gaza: On 11 December 2015, Sami Madi was killed east of al-Bureij R.C. in Deir al-Balah District; on 25 December 2015, Hani Wahdan was killed near Karni Crossing east of Gaza City, and Yusef Abu Sbeikhah was killed east of al-Bureij R.C.; on 15 January 2016, Muhammad Abu Zaid was killed in a demonstration east of al-Bureij R.C. Later during that demonstration, Muhammad Qaitah was also shot dead. B’Tselem has no information about the exact circumstances of his death at this time.

Demonstrator waves flag near perimeter fence, east of Gaza City. Background: Soldiers shelter behind dirt mound on other side of fence. Photo by Muhammad Salem, Reuters, 20 Nov. 2015
Demonstrator waves flag near perimeter fence, east of Gaza City. Background: Soldiers shelter behind dirt mound on other side of fence. Photo by Muhammad Salem, Reuters, 20 Nov. 2015

B’Tselem’s investigations regarding the demonstrations in which the four Palestinians were killed indicate that the military was not taken unawares as to them taking place. On the contrary, the military made preparations in advance, and soldiers deployed in positions they deemed appropriate shortly after the demonstrations began or even before they began. As part of the advance preparation, the officers in charge should have reviewed with their troops the open-fire regulations pertinent in case of demonstrations by unarmed people, and equipped the soldiers with non-lethal crowd control measures as well as protective gear.

The chain of events, however, indicates that in all cases documented, soldiers used live fire instead of crowd control measures. Live fire may be used only when soldiers face immediate mortal danger and when there is no other way to avert this danger. However, in the demonstrations in which the four Palestinians were killed, the soldiers were some distance away from the protestors, on the other side of the border fence, and they clearly were not in mortal danger, certainly not a danger that could not be prevented by other means. The four were killed as a result of excessive, unlawful use of live gunfire, for which no one has been held accountable.

Killing of Sami Madi, 11 December 2015, east of al-Bureij R.C.:

Sami Madi. Photo courtesy of the familyOn 11 December 2015, during a demonstration near the Gaza perimeter fence east of al-Bureij R.C., soldiers shot and killed Sami Madi, 41, the spokesperson for the central Gaza district of the Popular Front party. B’Tselem’s inquiries indicate that the Popular Front called on its supporters to demonstrate that day to mark the anniversary of its establishment. Several dozen demonstrators arrived at around 1:00 P.M., but most, about 500 Popular Front supporters, arrived only at 2:30 P.M. Early on in the demonstration, protesters hung flags on the perimeter fence and threw stones at the soldiers, who were deployed on the other side of the fence. An eyewitness related that at least two youths were wounded at that point from live gunfire by the soldiers. Most of the demonstrators remained at a distance of a few hundred meters from the fence, and a small number approached closer. At around 4:00 P.M., during a lull in the shooting, Sami Madi was standing about 300 meters away from the fence. As soon as he started moving nearer to the fence, the soldiers fired at him and at others who were walking with him. Madi who had been hit in the chest was evacuated to Shuhadaa al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah. He was pronounced dead a short while later. According to another eyewitness, another three youths were later wounded by live fire. As one of them was being evacuated, soldiers fired at the paramedics, hitting a journalist who was standing nearby. This incident was captured on video.

‘Awad al-Bhisi, resident of Deir al-Balah R.C., 29, related what had transpired to B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh:

‘Awad al-Bhisi. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’TselemOn Friday, 11 December 2015, I answered the Popular Front party’s call to join a demonstration near the perimeter fence, east of al-Bureij R.C., to mark the movement’s anniversary. We went there after the afternoon prayers. I went with Sami Madi, who was the spokesperson of the Popular Front in the central district, and a few other people. When we reached the border, there were about 500 young demonstrators there. About 50 of them were on the border strip, and the rest were farther away.

I saw about ten soldiers lying behind a mound of sand on the other side of the fence. There were a few military vehicles there too. Some demonstrators were setting tires on fire. Sami, some other people, and I were standing on the Jakar Road, which is a dirt road along the fence, about 300 meters away from the fence, and watching what was going on. There were some ambulances near us with their crews.

At around 4:00 P.M., Sami, another guy and I walked about 20 meters toward the fence. We were going to try to get the youths to move away from there, so they wouldn’t endanger their lives. We started walking toward the fence only after we verified with others that things were quiet and there was no shooting going on at the time.

As we approached, a soldier fired a bullet that hit the ground right in front of us. A few seconds later, they fired another bullet that hit Sami in the chest. I was about a meter away from him. Sami yelled and fell to the ground. The soldiers shot and hit the other guy who was with us on the tip of his nose. He fell too. At that point, the soldiers weren’t shooting at the other demonstrators at all, just at us. The soldiers weren’t using any crowd control measures, like rubber bullets or tear gas. They fired only live ammunition, right at us.

After fatally wounding Madi, the soldiers fired at other people, including 25-year-old journalist Mahmoud a-Luah from a-Nuseirat R.C. in the Deir al-Balah District. A-Luah, who was hit in the leg, spoke to B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh and told him what had happened:

Mahmoud a-Luah. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B'TselemI’m a journalist with Sawt a-Sha’ab Radio [the Voice of the People], and I cover events in the central Gaza Strip. On Friday, 11 December 2015, there was a demonstration planned. There are usually demonstrations on Fridays, but this one was special, because the Popular Front called its supporters to come demonstrate at the border. I went there to cover the events. I was wearing a vest with the word PRESS on it, like the rest of the journalists. I was standing near the Red Crescent ambulances on a dirt road about 300 meters away from the fence.

At around 4:00 P.M., when I was still standing at the same place, I saw a group of Popular Front demonstrators nearby. Suddenly, one of them was hit in the chest by a live bullet. I later found out that he was Sami Madi, the Popular Front’s spokesperson for the Deir al-Balah District. He was taken away in an ambulance in serious condition.

The soldiers then continued to fire sniper shots intermittently. I saw two guys getting wounded one after the other. They were standing close to me when they were shot. Paramedics arrived to evacuate them and there were also other journalists there documenting this. The soldiers kept on shooting and then a third guy was hit, and right after him, I took a live bullet in the right leg, as I was covering the incident live. I fell to the ground, and a few paramedics picked me up, put me in an ambulance and took me to Shuahdaa al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah. The bullet penetrated my right leg and exited.

A-Luah’s wounding and the gunfire at the paramedics and journalists were captured on video:

Killing of Yusef Abu Sbeikhah, 25 December 2015, east of al-Bureij R.C.:

According to B’Tselem’s investigation, Yusef Abu Sbeikhah, a 50-year-old farmer and father of five from al-Maghazi R.C., was shot by soldiers and fatally wounded in the abdomen and thigh on Friday, 25 December 2015. He succumbed to his wounds three days later, on 28 December 2015. Abu Sbeikhah was shot while working alone as a hired hand on a plot of land located about half a kilometer north of his home, east of al-Bureij R.C. and about 400 meters from the perimeter fence. A demonstration with about 400 to 500 participants was taking place at the time near the fence. Some of the protestors went up to the fence, and others were standing farther from it, at a distance of up to 200 metes. The protestors waved flags, set tires on fire and threw stones at the soldiers who were sheltering behind three sand mounds on the other side of the perimeter fence. There were about ten military jeeps at the site.

Fadi Thabet, a journalist who witnessed the shooting spoke to B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh and told him about it:

On Friday, 25 December 2015, as of about 1:00 P.M., I was in an area called Tel Um Husniya, east of al-Bureij R.C., to cover the clashes between youths and soldiers near the perimeter fence. I stood about 400 meters away from the fence. Near me were Red Crescent ambulances and other journalists and people.

There were between 400 and 500 demonstrators, ages 15 to 20. They were near the fence, up to a distance of about 200 meters from the fence. Some were burning tires, some were waving flags near the fence and others were throwing stones at the soldiers. For more than two hours, the soldiers didn’t fire at anybody. Only at around 3:15 P.M. was there a first casualty, a person who was hit in the right leg by a bullet. About half an hour later, the soldiers shot and hit three more people, all wounded in the lower limbs. The soldiers used only live fire. I didn’t see any use of other measures like tear gas canisters or rubber-coated metal bullets.

At about 4:00 P.M., a farmer who was standing close to me was hit. I found out later his name was Yusef Abu Sbeikhah. He had come to the plot to check on his crops. Suddenly, I heard a shot and saw him yelling. He was wounded in the left thigh. The others and I called him to come closer to us. We couldn’t get to him, because he was in an area that was exposed to the Israeli snipers, and I was protected by a sand mound. I was afraid they’d shoot me if I went closer to him to help. I’ve seen soldiers fire at people who were helping the wounded in the past.

The farmer started walking toward the shelter. He walked a few steps and then they shot him again, this time in the abdomen. He managed to make it to the shelter and then fell to the ground. The paramedics who were there evacuated him. He was in very serious condition. He was pale because of the bleeding, and he couldn’t talk.

I stayed there. The clashes ended at around 5:00 P.M. At that point the soldiers did fire tear-gas canisters, and the youths dispersed.

Yunes Abu Sbeikhah, Yusef’s brother, who is 46 and has four children, spoke to B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh about the difficulties endured by farmers near the border:

Top: Yunes Abu Sbeikhah. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem; Bottom: His late brother, Yusef Abu Sbeikhah. Photo courtesy of the family.I’m a farmer and I live near the border with Israel, northeast of al-Maghazi R.C., like my late brother Yusef, and our other brothers. Our family has a two-hectare plot of land about 200 meters east of the perimeter fence. 0.4 hectares of it belonged to my brother Yusef. We used to have olive and citrus trees there and there was a water well there too. The land was our livelihood, but in 2006, the military destroyed our crops, and every time we replanted, soldiers shot at us and scared us off. We started planting wheat and barley which don’t need much maintenance, because it was dangerous to go there.

My brother Yusef grew wheat and barley in his plot, and also worked as a hired hand for other farmers. He barely made a living. He worked only a few days a month and got 30 shekels [approx. USD 7.5] a day, or even less.

At around 1:00 P.M. on Friday, 25 December 2015, after Friday prayers, Yusef went out, as usual, to the plot of land he was cultivating for a man from the ‘Abd al-Hadi family, who had hired him. There were clashes that day between some youths and soldiers in the border area, near that plot.

Later, relatives informed me that my brother had been shot and wounded. From the time he got hurt, we took shifts in the family, sitting beside him at the hospital. On Monday, 28 December 2015, my brothers called me and told me Yusef had died of his injuries. His children are now orphans. There’s no one to provide from them. Our financial situation is rough because we’re farmers and have no other profession.

Killing of Hani Wahdan, 25 December 2015, near Karni Crossing, east of Gaza City:

On 25 December 2015, near Karni Crossing, soldiers shot 23-year-old Hani Wahdan in the head, killing him. B’Tselem’s inquiries indicate that Wahdan, a resident of a-Tufah neighborhood in Gaza City, was shot at around 2:30 P.M., during clashes with soldiers. During the clashes, Palestinians threw stones at the soldiers. A few minutes before the shooting began, they had also thrown two Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.

Muhammad Wahdan, 19, is Hani’s cousin. He related what he saw to B’Tselem field-researcher Muhammad Sabah:

Hani was my cousin and we were good friends ever since we were children. Ever since the recent incidents started last October, we would often go out on Fridays to demonstrate and throw stones at soldiers in east a-Shuja’iyeh neighborhood, near the perimeter fence. There’s an abandoned industrial zone there, near Karni Crossing. A lot of youths go to these demonstrations. In our area, there are no job opportunities and there’s nothing for us to do there except go to the demonstrations.

Muhammad Wahdan by a picture of his cousin Hani. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B’Tselem, 30 Dec. 2015 On Friday, 25 December 2015, I went to the demonstration at around 1:00 P.M. When I got there, I saw about 100 youths, and I ran into Hani. A few youths were throwing stones at the soldiers who were standing on a crane, behind the fence, firing tear-gas canisters at the demonstrators.

Hani and I and some other people were hiding behind some concrete blocks about 50 meters away from the fence. There are four, five concrete blocks in a row there. We put some stones on top of them to protect ourselves better, because the concrete blocks are low and don’t protect the whole body. We threw stones. The air smelled like tear gas. The soldiers were firing all the time, sometimes live ammunition - sometimes firing it in the air- and sometimes tear gas. Two young guys who were hiding behind the concrete blocks threw two Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. The crane the soldiers were in lowered them, and the soldiers fired a few tear-gas canisters at the blocks we were hiding behind. A minute or two later, the crane went back up, and we went back to throwing stones at the soldiers. Hani was holding a scarf, taunting the soldiers and waving it around. At that moment, a sniper aimed his weapon at us and suddenly I heard a shot. I felt it had hit my ear, but I put my hands on my ears and didn’t see any blood. I looked beside me and saw Hani lying on the ground. He was bleeding from the mouth. I tried to pick him up but a lot of blood came out of his mouth. One of the journalists put a bandage on his mouth and we got him out of there. An ambulance took Hani to a-Shifaa Hospital in Gaza, where they pronounced him dead.

I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because he was right next to me. He was my good friend and I lost him in a split second, while we were throwing stones at the soldiers. We didn’t really put the soldiers in any danger. They had no reason to shoot Hani, and right in the mouth. I’m still in shock from what happened and I can’t sleep at night. I miss him very much.

Demonstrator in Gaza Strip uses sling shot to hurl stone at soldiers on other side of the fence. Photo by Muhammad Salem, Reuters, 20 Nov. 2015
Demonstrator in Gaza Strip uses sling shot to hurl stone at soldiers on other side of the fence. Photo by Muhammad Salem, Reuters, 20 Nov. 2015

Killing of Muhammd Abu Zaid, 15 January 2016, east of al-Bureij R.C.:

On Friday, 15 January 2016, Muhammad Abu Zaid, 19, of al-Bureij R.C. was killed. B’Tselem’s inquiries indicate that soldiers shot Abu Zaid in the head during a demonstration near the border fence, east of al-Bureij R.C. An eyewitness to the incident told B’Tselem’s field researcher that the demonstration began after afternoon prayers, at around 1:00 P.M. The number of protestors gradually grew, and by around 3:00 P.M., about 100 people had gathered. A few of them threw stones at the soldiers who were deployed on the other side of the fence, on and behind sand mounds.

The soldiers fired live ammunition and tear-gas canisters at the demonstrators. At around 3:20 P.M., the soldiers fired two shots that hit very near Abu Zaid, and then a third shot that hit him in the head. He was less than 100 meters away from the fence at the time. At around 4:00 P.M. at the same demonstration, Muhammad Qaitah was shot in the abdomen. At the time of writing this report B’Tselem has no information about the exact circumstances of his death.

S.H., 20, described the circumstances of Abu Zaid’s death to B’Tselem researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh:

After afternoon prayers on Friday, 15 January 2016, I went to the perimeter fence, east of al-Bureij R.C., to take part in the weekly demonstration. We waited for more demonstrators to come. At around 3:00 P.M., when there were about 100 demonstrators, the clashes started and demonstrators started throwing stones at the soldiers, who were behind sand mounds on the other side of the fence. About six soldiers were lying on a sand mound right in front of us, in a sniper position. There were other sand mounds south and north of there, and there were soldiers there too. They fired live ammunition and tear-gas canisters.

At around 3:20 P.M., there were about 30 of us, including Muhammad Abu Zaid, on a hill called Tel Um Husniya, less than 100 meters west of the fence. We were hiding behind a sand mound. One of the guys got up and went closer to the fence, and Muhammad and I stayed where we were. Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired a live bullet that hit the dirt mound we were hiding behind. About a minute later, they fired another bullet that hit the ground, right behind Muhammad. Less than a minute later, they fired a third bullet that hit Muhammad right in the head.

Another guy and I were hit by shrapnel in the face. I looked at Muhammad and saw him crouching on the ground. A lot of blood was running from his head. When I saw him like that, I went into shock and couldn’t do anything. I just kept sitting where I was, until a few guys came and picked him up with the help of paramedics, put him on a stretcher and left the area. The rest of the people and I moved away from the border, to the west.