GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel’s military rejected new allegations Monday of unlawful use of force against unarmed Palestinians during mass protests in Gaza last week, as the Palestinian death toll rose to 18.
Israeli troops prevented a mass breach of the border fence and an attempt by Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas to “drag us into a catastrophe,” said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, an army spokesman. He denied soldiers acted unlawfully, but said some mistakes might have been made and would be investigated.
Israel’s defense minister had previously rejected international calls for an independent investigation.
Allegations of excessive force and unlawful shootings were prompted by the death toll — Friday was the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war — and comments by military officials that the “main instigators” were targeted. Amateur video has emerged showing one Palestinian being fatally shot from behind while carrying a tire as he ran from the border area.
Hamas, which organized Friday’s mass march, has hinted that future protests — to be staged off and on for the next six weeks — could culminate in a mass border breach, referring to a Palestinian return to Jerusalem. However, Hamas leaders have not said specifically that large crowds would attempt to tear down the fence.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday hinted at an escalation, saying last Friday’s protests had a “limit,” but that it’s not clear where that limit would be next time.
In Friday’s march, thousands of Palestinians — Israel estimated a turnout of 35,000 — headed toward the border area along several points. Smaller groups moved closer to the border fence, throwing stones, hurling firebombs or burning tires.
Manelis alleged Monday that Hamas staged the mass march as a cover for attacks. He said there were five attempts to cross the fence, including with cutters, and that three explosives were planted.
He said at least 11 of those killed were members of militant groups, including two who opened fire on soldiers near the border, but would not say how the others were killed. He defined a wide range of actions near the fence as terrorism, including throwing stones and burning tires.
The military’s open-fire policies came under more scrutiny as amateur videos emerged purportedly showing two Palestinians being shot — one killed and one wounded — while not posing any apparent immediate threat to soldiers.
In one video posted on social media, a young man later identified as Abdelfatah Abdelnabi is seen being fatally shot from behind while carrying a tire as he ran away from the border.
Majd al-Omari, who filmed the incident on his smartphone, told The Associated Press on Monday that just before the shooting, Abdelnabi had been involved in burning tires about 200 meters (yards) from the fence.
Manelis said that the man in the video “had carried out acts of terror along the fence for several hours,” an apparent reference to the burning of tires, but said the military would investigate.
In another video, a man is seen kneeling in the first of two rows of worshippers Friday, facing the fence at a distance of 150 to 200 meters (yards). Suddenly, he stands up, limps a few meters, collapses and is carried away by young men who shout “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great.”
Adli Abu Taha, who filmed the incident on his mobile phone, said the man, later identified as Ibrahim Abu Shanab, had thrown stones close to the fence before joining the group for prayers. Local hospital records indicate Abu Shanab was shot in the leg.
Manelis alleged that the video was fabricated, without elaborating.
He said soldiers followed strict rules of engagement, but would not say in which cases they used lethal force. He said a 100-meter wide area in Gaza, along the fence, had been defined as a no-go zone.
Rights groups said it’s unlawful to use lethal force when protesters don’t pose an imminent threat.
“An army can use reasonable force to defend a border,” said Omar Shakir, of Human Rights Watch.
“This was an incident where soldiers were firing from behind the fence, separated by buffer zones and other objects, firing on individuals well behind the fence, in some cases retreating, not moving forward, or advancing without posing imminent threat,” he said.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said Monday that the number of Palestinians killed Friday rose to 18, after a 29-year-old man died of his injuries. The total included 13 demonstrators and five Palestinians killed by Israeli fire near the Gaza border in other circumstances that day, including two gunmen who had opened fire on Israeli soldiers.
The ministry has said 758 people were wounded by live fire on Friday — a figure disputed by Manelis, who said he believed several dozen Palestinians at most were wounded by live rounds and the rest by tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said Monday that its ambulances had transported 615 people with bullet injuries from the border area to hospitals Friday. Health Ministry ambulances also evacuated some of the wounded to hospitals.
The idea for the mass marches was first floated by a Gaza social media activist several months ago, and was later adopted by Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007. In response to Hamas rule, Israel and Egypt enforced a crippling blockade of Gaza’s borders. Israel and Hamas have fought three cross-border wars.
Protests are to continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The date is mourned by Palestinians as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. Most of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
Gaza’s continued border closure has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern.
Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.