I have spent thousands of hours of my life, as a regular soldier and in the reserves, defending Israel’s border with Gaza. It’s a very complex security reality that I’m familiar with relatively close up.
Here’s an anecdote: At the start of one of my tours of duty there, during the regular briefing with the outgoing brigade commander, I was surprised to receive extremely vague orders regarding the procedure for opening fire when someone approaches the fence, or when a crowd approaches it, or, in the worst-case scenario, when a crowd in which some are armed and some are not approaches. The company commander who was handing the operations over to us, told us that there is actually an invisible line about 250-300 meters from the fence, and that whenever someone passes that line, a warning shot is fired and if he continues advancing, there is an order to shoot him. “If the line is invisible,” I asked him, “then how do the Palestinians see it?”
“They don’t see it, but eventually they learn,” he replied.
That seemed terrible to me. In a discussion with my company commander, we decided not to implement this procedure. Immediately following my deployment, I met with my friend Menachem Finkelstein, who was at the time the Chief Military Advocate General. He brought the entire senior staff involved in the field with him to our meeting, after which the open-fire orders on persons beyond the fence were sharpened and clarified, and a new briefing procedure was introduced during the pre-deployment training. The “Invisible Line” procedure was, of course, declared illegal.
In my thousands of hours there I lost a few friends. This is not just the story of a giant with advanced weapons fighting a harmless adversary. The reality is far more complex. The attack tunnels have complicated things. So have the missiles. And yet, it is still clear who is stronger and who holds the power.
What happened in Gaza?
I have been reading the accounts and commentaries and it seems to have been a very complicated incident. A crowd of people armed with Molotov cocktails, some with rifles, some with primitive weapons and some unarmed, approaches the fence. The IDF said Molotov cocktails were thrown in several cases, explosive charges were planted, tires were torched and attempts were made to sabotage the fence and cross it.
How is the army supposed to react in such a situation? What is a legal order, what is a dubious order and what order is manifestly illegal? What orders did the army snipers receive? There is not enough information yet and I cannot judge the situation. That said, I do want to say a few things:
First, to all those who immediately posted on Facebook all day long about a “massacre” and suggested that the IDF fired live bullets at Gazans who were simply protesting: You acted in an incredibly irresponsible manner.
Second, to those who insisted that everything was Hamas’s fault and that there is nothing to investigate, and this would teach them not to approach the fence, and that they are an enemy and deserve to die etc.: You too acted irresponsibly.
Third, there is some video circulating on the Internet that appear to show cases of shooting at unarmed people who did not physically try to damage the fence. If these stories are true, then each case should be thoroughly investigated and examined. It’s not acceptable to just move on as if nothing happened.
Fourth, even after the Gazans used live fire, such as explosive charges, shooting and Molotov cocktails, if an order was given that anyone who crosses a certain line is liable to be hit by live fire, that is, in my opinion, a overly-harsh and unacceptable order. There are other ways to disperse a mob, even in such situations. Any live fire needed to be aimed precisely at an individual who crossed the line with a deadly weapon, what is known in military jargon as someone “with means and intent.” I don’t know if there was such an order, but I certainly hope not.
Fifth, the bottom line is that there is currently not enough reliable and clear information. We have to take a deep breath, and wait until there is an in-depth investigation. I don’t expect Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to order such an inquiry. I do trust and hope the General Staff is doing so without Liberman’s intervention.
And finally, a footnote: The situation in Gaza is very, very, very bad. Inconceivable poverty. Horrific living conditions. Regardless of whether it is Israel’s fault or not, it is a very, very bad situation for them and for us. This situation must be dealt with.
We need to stop being so trigger happy with our keyboards. A very complicated situation cannot be judged within five minutes. I have been there. I was there for thousands of hours, including three times during escalated conflicts. I have been there as a soldier and as a human rights activist; as a fighter and a man of peace. It’s not simple. It is not simple at all.