Monday, November 1, 2010

Daily shootings in Gaza's border zone

By Jared Malsin

UMM AN-NASSER, Gaza (Ma'an) -- A string of shootings of Palestinian workers, many of them only teenagers, in the northern Gaza Strip has brought renewed attention to a live-fire exclusion zone imposed by Israel on the Gaza side of the Green Line.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon removed settlers and most soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but Israeli forces still patrol the buffer zone, a swath of Palestinian territory along Gaza’s northern and eastern borders.

Many of those injured are desperately poor Palestinian workers who venture into the exclusion zone to gather gravel and other construction scrap from what remains of the former Israeli settlements in the north.

Defense for Children International documented 14 cases between March and October of this year of Palestinian youths under the age of 18 who were shot by Israeli forces while collecting gravel in the border zone.

While a few of these teens were shot as close as 50 meters from the border, others were 500, 600, even 800 meters from the border when the shooting occurred. The youngest of these children was 13, the oldest 17.

Twenty-five Palestinian civilians have been killed in the border area since the end of Israel's three-week offensive on Gaza in January 2009.

Every day the workers set out to the abandoned settlements of Nissanit, Elli Sinai, and Dugit, using donkey carts to haul sacks of small stones and gravel. These aggregates, used in construction, are among the items banned from Gaza by Israel, creating what one UN report called a "lucrative but dangerous market" based on recycling such materials.

Many of the workers who collect this scrap live in the town of Umm An-Nasser, known in Gaza as the Bedouin Village, a community of about 5,000 people on the edge of Beit Lahiya.

Sitting under a tent on the edge of the buffer zone, Israeli watchtowers in the distance, Fadi Abu Hashish, 26, says he does this dangerous, backbreaking labor simply because "there's no other work."

Abu Hashish said since he’s been old enough to work, the border with Israel has been sealed. His father and grandfather, he said, used to work picking citrus and vegetables across the border in the city of Ashdod, but because of Israel's closure of Gaza, these jobs are simply no longer an option.

Abu Hashish and other workers explained that once they collect the stones from the settlements they wash them, crush them into smaller parts, and then sell them. A team of three men, he said, would earn around 150 shekels ($40) per day.

And although the workers with their creaking donkey carts are visible to the Israeli soldiers monitoring the area from watchtowers, unmanned aerial drones, and other surveillance equipment, the shootings continue.

Fadi's cousin, Ahmad Toufiq Abu Hashish, was shot in the lower leg by Israeli soldiers while collecting gravel on 13 October. In an interview in his family’s Bedouin-type encampment on the edge of the exclusion zone, said the incident took place at 6 a.m., around 600 meters from the border.

"They fired just one shot. It wasn't a warning shot; it was a shot in my leg," he said. His cousin, Fadi, who was working with him that morning, confirmed that just one shot was fired.

As it's considered too dangerous for ambulances to venture into the border area, his brother and cousin laid him on their donkey cart, carrying him back to the Bedouin Village, where an ambulance transported him, unconscious, to Kamal Edwan hospital in Beit Lahiya.

Abu Hashish attended school until the 10th grade, and had been collecting scrap in the border area for about a month when he was shot. He said he earned about 30 shekels a day.

Physicians at Kamal Edwan informed him that his bones were shattered. After spending 20 days completely immobile in his family's camp, he is to return to the hospital to see if the leg has healed enough to install a prosthesis.

He told Ma'an that once his leg heals, he'll have no choice but to return to collecting gravel: "I have to go back. There’s no work."

Asked why he thought Israelis shot him, he said, "Really, I don’t know."

While Ahmad gave his testimony, lying on a blanket on the dirt floor of the tent, the sound of gunfire and exploding tank shells could be heard, coming from the border area.

Information gathered by aid agencies, the UN, rights groups, shows that Ahmad Abu Hashish's story is far from unique.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, eight Palestinians, all civilians, were shot by Israelis soldiers along the border in September alone. Six of these were workers collecting construction scrap. In a separate incident in the border area, Israeli tank shells killed a 91-year-old shepherd, and two boys, aged 16 and 17.

Bassam Masri, head of orthopedics at the Kamal Edwan hospital, told the British newspaper The Guardian earlier in October that around 50 people have been treated for gunshot wounds suffered in or near the buffer zone while collecting rubble in the past three months.

The Israeli military has publicly declared a 300-meter no-go zone on the Gaza side of the Green Line, but a UN study released in August, based on more than 100 interviews, shows that "Since late 2008, Palestinians have been totally or partially prevented from accessing land located up to 1,000-1,500 meters from the Green Line (depending on the specific area)."

These restrictions mean that 17 percent of the total land area of the already tiny Gaza Strip, and 35 percent of its agricultural land, is off-limits to Palestinian use. This in turn has contributed to a variety of humanitarian problems, further damaging the economy and directly affecting more than 113,000 people who live or work in or near the border.

Confusion about the boundaries of the exclusion zone persists. "Despite the potential for civilian casualties, the Israeli authorities have not informed the affected population about the precise boundaries of the restricted areas and the conditions under which access to these areas may be permitted or denied.”

Regardless of the actual size of the buffer zone, rights advocates say the ongoing shootings of civilians are unacceptable.

Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al-Mezan Center for Human rights told Ma'an: "Even if the Israelis announce a 300-meter buffer zone, people who go there in the daylight, and who do not appear to be a threat to the soldiers guarding the border fence, then there is no reason to shoot them."

"Shooting unarmed civilians who are only doing work is illegal under international law," Abu Rahma added.

Al-Mezan, along with the Israeli groups Adalah and Physicians for Human Rights, is preparing to demand that Israeli authorities investigate these shootings.

But, based on past experience dealing with the Israeli government, Abu Rahma noted, "we don’t have high hopes, but these are the tools available to us."

"As long as construction materials are not allowed in Gaza these people will continue to collect this scrap. We need some kind of protection for them," he also said.

In response to an inquiry from Ma'an, the Israeli military sent the following statement: "In light of the attempts of terrorist organizations to execute terrorist attacks around the security fence, in 2008 the IDF declared a buffer zone extending 300 meters west of the fence that would be closed to the Palestinian population. The IDF distributed leaflets written in Arabic, warning residents not to approach the fence."

"It is important to stress that the IDF acts in order to prevent harm to civilian populations in its operations and any complaint expressed regarding its soldiers' conduct will be taken into consideration and examined according to the existing policy, which it has declared repeatedly in the past."

"Since the beginning of 2010, 60 incidents of small arms shooting towards IDF forces, 34 incidents of improvised explosive device (IED) plantings, and 15 incidents of anti-tank missile fire were documented. A prominent incident is one in which an IDF officer, Maj. Eliraz Peretz, and soldier, Staff Sgt. Ilan Saviatkovski, were killed, and additional two soldiers were wounded, in an encounter with militants south of Kisufim crossing."

The military did not respond to a specific question asking why Palestinian civilians were shot when they were outside the 300-meter zone.