Israeli forces markedly increased their attacks on Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip during the second quarter of 2016, United Nations (UN) data has revealed, with concerns that such violence endangers the viability of the ceasefire that ended ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014.
During the period April-June, there were an average of more than 90 shooting incidents per month by Israeli forces in Gaza’s so-called access restricted areas (ARA) – some 60 on land, and 30 at sea. This is more than double the equivalent average figures for the last six months of 2015.
Israeli forces have long attacked farmers, fishermen and other civilians in Gaza’s ARA. As the UN described in July, Israel’s unilaterally-imposed access restrictions are “enforced by firing direct or warning live ammunition, the destruction of property, arrests and the confiscation of equipment.”
Presenting the latest figures in a quarterly update published last month, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) described “the use of force by Israel” in the ARA as a “particular cause for concern.”
According to James Heenan, head of office at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, “there are almost daily shooting incidents by Israeli forces into Gaza, often resulting in injury and even death as well as destruction of property.”
In most cases, Heenan told Middle East Monitor, “there are no indications that Israeli forces were in any imminent threat to have justified the level of force employed, including use of firearms. Often victims are farmers, fishermen, children, and demonstrators.”
On April 3, the Israeli authorities announced an expansion of the permitted fishing zone off the southern Gaza coast from six to nine miles (note that the Oslo Accords stipulate a 20-mile limit). However, on June 26, less than three months later, the six-mile limit was re-imposed.
By July, according to OCHA, more than 90 fishermen had been arrested and detained, “the highest figure in any year since records began in 2009.” Over nine days in August, for example, Israeli forces attacked Palestinian fishermen on six different occasions (Aug. 21, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29).
In May, meanwhile, it was reported that the Israeli army would allow farmers to access land close to the border fence, under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Since 2014, the ICRC has been helping Gaza’s farmers to rehabilitate land and secure access.
While some farmers have clearly benefited, a Jerusalem-based ICRC spokesperson declined to comment on Israeli forces’ continued attacks in the ARA, saying that “any issues of concern are addressed as part of our confidential and bilateral dialogue with all parties to the conflict.”
As one farmer told activists recently: “My lands are relatively close to the fence, so I cannot set foot in them between 6pm and 6am without getting shot at. What I can do if the electricity does not come before 6pm? I have to leave my land without watering, risking the loss of the crop.”
The violence used by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip is vastly underreported in the English-language Western media. The majority of attacks on fishermen, farmers, and demonstrators do not even get a mention.
Such attacks, however, cannot be divorced from the bigger picture in the Gaza Strip, including the ‘security’ dimension that is typically understood by journalists, analysts, and policy-makers in terms of projectile fire and Israeli military responses.
According to Fawzi Barhoum, a Gaza-based Hamas spokesperson, Hamas views Israeli forces’ routine use of violence against Palestinians in the ARA as a violation of the 2014 ceasefire. “Hamas records all the violations, and updates the regional sponsors of the ceasefire accordingly”, he said.
Furthermore, Barhoum added, such attacks by Israeli forces “endanger the status quo.”
Each time, Hamas discusses what happens with the other Palestinian factions, who evaluate together what is the best response to the Israeli violation in question; whether it is silence, condemnation, warnings, firing short-range rockets, unleashing snipers on the borders, etc.
Thus, aside from the cost for farmers and fishermen of Israel’s policy of violently enforcing a ‘no-go zone’ inside Gaza, such attacks, clearly on the rise, also risk further undermining a ceasefire agreement that brought ‘calm’ for Israel, but nothing like it for Palestinians.