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Deadly Gaza Protest Spurs Debate in Israel Over Army's Actions

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/4/2018 Rory Jones, Dov Lieber

TEL AVIV—The Israeli army’s decision to open fire on Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip last week has reignited a public debate about the use of military force ahead of another round of demonstrations Friday that are expected again to test the country’s soldiers.

Palestinian health authorities have said 18 people were killed and more than 1,400 injured. Israel said Gazans, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails, charged a border fence dividing the strip from Israeli territory. The protest organizers said the Palestinians posed no threat.

Israel’s government, its coalition parties and many political commentators defended the army’s response, saying it was justified in using gunfire, in addition to tear gas, to prevent a breach of the fence that they said could have threatened Israeli lives.

Human-rights activists and opposition politicians, especially on the left, however, criticized what they said was an excessive reaction by the armed forces.

The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, endorsed a United Nations call for an investigation and said the army’s “trigger happy” policy was dangerous. Gideon Levy, a columnist for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, labelled the deaths and injuries a “massacre.”

Demonstrators need “to be dealt with in the way you enforce law on civilian protesters,” said Michael Sfard, a human-rights lawyer who helped organize a protest of roughly 300 Israelis against the army.

The protesters have been calling for the right to return to homes in what is now Israel, a demand Israeli officials reject because they say it would risk the country’s Jewish majority.

Palestinians are preparing for another mass protest this Friday. Organizers have said the demonstrations will continue until May 15, known among Palestinians as “Nakba Day” or “Day of the Catastrophe,” the day after the date of Israel’s 1948 founding.

Military analysts said the army’s forceful reaction reflected growing tensions on the border fence in recent months with Hamas.

A bomb exploded on the fence in February, injuring four soldiers. The Israeli army retaliated by striking Hamas’s military positions and saying it held the group responsible for attacks on Israel from Gaza.

The army also said in recent weeks it has apprehended Palestinians that have infiltrated from Gaza, including three armed with knives and hand grenades.

In a sign of the sensitivity over the reponse to last week’s Friday protest, Army Radio anchor Kobi Meidan in a personal Facebook post said he was “ashamed to be Israeli.”

a crowd of people in a field © Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The post caused outrage among conservative Israeli politicians, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who in an interview with another radio station called for Mr. Meidan’s dismissal.

Mr. Meidan apologized, saying he wasn’t criticizing the military and that his post was “written from a sense of pain and caring.”

Until Mr. Meidan apologized, Army Radio had intended to fire him, according to a spokeswoman for the station, one of Israel’s most popular. Mr. Meidan declined to comment further.

Army officials have disputed the number of injuries reported by Gazan authorities and questioned the authenticity of videos posted online that purported to show unarmed protesters being shot.

The military said it used rubber bullets and tear gas, and only fired regular ammunition against militant attacks during the demonstrations. It distributed videos that showed Palestinians throwing stones and firebombs at the border fence and running toward it.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza and is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, is using the weekslong demonstration as a pretext to attack Israelis and divert attention from the group’s poor governance of the strip.

The military said 10 of those killed were operatives of Hamas. Hamas confirmed five of the dead were its members. The group said it wasn’t the main organizer of the protests.

The Israeli national conversation around Friday’s clashes echoes that surrounding the case of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter last year for shooting dead an unarmed and subdued Palestinian who had attacked another Israeli soldier in the West Bank.

Mr. Azaria’s trial polarized Israelis, with many arguing that Mr. Azaria was only doing his job and shouldn’t be prosecuted. The soldier said he was acting in self defense. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, later cut to 14 months, and is due to be released next month after serving roughly 9 months.

While the army leadership and some politicians in the governing coalition supported the case against Mr. Azaria, opposition to last week’s military response has largely been confined to left-leaning Israeli politicians.

Israel’s military spokesman told reporters Monday it will use the “same forces and the same capabilities” for this Friday’s protest.

Some 88% of Israelis trust the army, more than any other government institution, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

“There’s been an unsurprising lack of shock by the numbers of Palestinians killed,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political-science professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya said of the Israeli response. “The society has become hardened over the years.”

Write to Rory Jones at rory.jones@wsj.com

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