An Israeli soldier was convicted for the death of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy during the Great March of Return protests last year at the border fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. This soldier is the first Israeli to be convicted of anything since the protests began in March 2018.
Not surprisingly, this soldier was only sentenced to one month of labor, demoted to private, and was not convicted for murdering the boy, only for doing so without permission. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said in a statement, "The verdict indicates that on July 13, 2018, during a violent riot, the soldier fired at a Palestinian rioter who climbed the border fence opposite the Gaza Strip, without obtaining permission from his commanders while not following the rules of engagement or the instructions given to him earlier."
A video of the incident was uploaded to Twitter. The video shows 15-year-old Othman Helles barely get his two feet on the fence before he is shot dead. Helles is clearly unarmed, and cannot be taken as a serious threat to a soldier with a rifle and full body armor.
Since these protests began, children, paramedics, journalists, and disabled people have been killed by Israeli forces. The worst the protesters can do is hurl rocks across the fence or send burning kites, hardly a threat to the Israeli soldiers.
This conviction could just be a sorry attempt to appease the UN and other critics of the way the IDF has handled these protests. Since the first day of the Great March of Return, the UN has called for investigations into the massacres.
In February 2019, the UN released a report on their investigation into the killings. The UN concluded that "Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law" and there was "no justification for Israel to shoot protesters with live ammunition."
March 30th 2018 was the first day of the Great March of Return. That day, 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. The next day the IDF tweeted, "Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed."
The UN report details some of the injuries and killings from that first day of protests, like this account of a 17-year-old’s slaying, "On 30 March, Israeli forces shot Ibrahim, a candy seller from Rafah, in the back of the head as he walked away, approximately 100 m from the separation fence, after he and his companion threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He died almost instantly." Shooting a teenager in the back of the head was "accurate and measured" according to the IDF.
On May 14th 2018, the U.S. Embassy officially opened in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of Gazans marched at the border fence to protest the move, which turned into the deadliest day of the Great March of Return. 60 demonstrators were killed that day.
One of the most egregious killings happened the day of the embassy opening. According to the UN report, "Fadi, from Khan Younis, had had both legs amputated following an Israeli airstrike in 2008. On 14 May, Israeli snipers shot him in the chest at the Abasan Al-Jadida protest site, where he was sitting in his wheelchair with two friends approximately 300 m from the separation fence. He died immediately."
The UN report is full of gut-wrenching stories like this. And the only conclusion to draw from this one soldier’s conviction is that every other death, even the unarmed man in a wheelchair almost 1,000 feet from the fence, was done with permission from IDF commanders.
The Great March of Return still goes on every Friday. Why are so many Gazans willing to risk their lives every week? The protesters are not only demanding freedom of movement but also an end to the blockade enacted in 2007.
The small territory is home to almost two million people, one of the most densely populated places in the world. The blockade has shattered Gaza’s economy. By 2015, the GDP of the occupied territory had been cut in half. Currently, the unemployment rate is about 50 percent and around 70 percent for Gaza’s youth. The UN has said Gaza might be unlivable by 2020, mainly due to a lack of drinkable water.
The Islamist political party Hamas is blamed for the blockade, and serves as an easy scapegoat for both US and Israeli politicians. Hamas was democratically elected in 2006. After the election, Elliot Abrams, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and is now President Trump’s envoy to Venezuela, met with Palestinian businessmen and advocated for a "hard coup" against Hamas.
Fatah, the political rival of Hamas, was armed by the US and Israel to overthrow the government of Hamas. Fatah failed in their coup attempt, but the real losers were the people of Gaza. The violence between the two parties was the excuse used to put the draconian blockade on the occupied territory.
The victory of Hamas in Gaza was not all bad for Israeli officials. A WikiLeaks cable from 2007 reveals that Amos Yadin, who was the director of the IDF’s intelligence branch at the time, said, "Israel would be ‘happy’ if Hamas took over Gaza because the IDF could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state."
The state of Israel would not be able to operate with such impunity without the undying support of the US government. Thanks to lavish lobbying campaigns, even questioning that support in the halls of Congress is considered anti-Semitic.
Both the House and Senate have recently introduced legislation to ban the sale of crowd-control to munitions to Hong Kong law enforcement. Since June, massive protests have rocked Hong Kong. Although the protests have turned violent, no demonstrators have been killed by Hong Kong police. Yet, US lawmakers are quick to make legislation siding with the protesters. Imagine the reaction from Washington if police were slaughtering people in the streets of Hong Kong?
The people of Gaza will continue to march for their most basic human rights. The international community may cry foul, but as long as the premier empire supports Israel, they can operate without any real consequences. The one month sentence this soldier received is a slap in the face to the families of those murdered at the fence. What will it take to bring these families justice?
Notes: To see footage and hear from protesters at the Great March of Return, watch Abby Martin’s new documentary Gaza Fights for Freedom.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.