A major Israeli army campaign is taking social media by storm. The unstated aim of the "#Untie_Our_Hands" initiative is the desire to kill, with no accountability, more Palestinian protesters at the nominal border with the Gaza Strip. The campaign was motivated by the killing of an Israeli sniper, Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was reportedly shot from the Palestinian side of the fence on 21 August.
My immediate question is this: what more do Israeli soldiers want? They have already killed more than 300 unarmed Palestinian protesters and wounded and maimed thousands more at the Gaza fence during what Palestinians referred to as the "Great March of Return" protests between 2018 and 2020. And they have done so with impunity. Nobody is "tying their hands".
This "march" is now being renewed, though it often takes place at night. Frustrated Palestinian youth gather in their thousands, chanting anti-Israeli occupation slogans and, at times, throwing rocks at Israeli snipers deployed nearly a mile away.
Months after the latest Israeli onslaught against Gaza — a relatively brief but still deadly war between 10 and 21 May — the stifling status quo in the besieged Strip has not changed: the hermetic Israeli-led siege; the snipers; the occasional night bombardment; the devastating unemployment; the closures; and the lack of everything, from clean water to cement and even cancer medication. All are still a daily reality.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that Palestinians in Gaza, especially the youth, are in desperate need of a platform to express their justifiable rage at this ongoing misery. Hence, the renewed mass protests at the fence.
Israeli politicians and media intentionally exaggerate the "threat" to Israel's security posed by the Gaza protesters. They speak of "incendiary balloons" as if they are 500-pound bombs dropped by fighter jets. They are terrified at the prospect of Gaza kids "breaching the border", a reference to the fences that Israel has established arbitrarily around Gaza without respecting any UN-recognised ceasefire demarcation.
This fear-mongering is back with a vengeance. The deadly Israeli sniper's killing provides an opportunity for politicians in Israel to present themselves to the electorate as defenders of the army and the champions of Israeli "security". A political witch hunt is ongoing against those who are supposedly "cuffing the hands of our troops".
This same assertion was made by Naftali Bennett in 2019, long before he became Israel's prime minister. "The High Court is cuffing the hands of [Israel Defence Forces] troops," he claimed, before vowing to "free the IDF from the High Court."
A year earlier, Bennett offered more details on how he intends to end Palestinian protests at the Gaza fence. Responding to a question during an Israeli Army Radio interview on what he would do if he were the country's defence minister, he replied: "I would not allow terrorists to cross the border from Gaza every day… and if they do, we should shoot to kill. Terrorists from Gaza should not enter Israel… Just as in Lebanon, Syria or anywhere else we should shoot to kill."
The emphasis on "killing" in response to any form of Palestinian protests seems to be the common denominator between Israeli officials, senior army officers and ordinary soldiers. The latter, who are behind the social media campaign, seem to be enjoying their time at the Gaza fence. According to their own testimonies, snipers track the number of Palestinians they shoot, try to break each other's records and cheer on video when they document a "clean shot" against a protester. This illustrates the level of horrific violence meted out against those largely young Palestinians, including children.
Israeli snipers work in pairs. A third person, known as the "locator", helps them to identify their next target. Eden is an Israeli sniper who, along with some others, gave his testimony to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in March 2020. He is particularly proud of a grizzly milestone that he and his team "achieved".
"On that day, our pair had the largest number of hits, 42 in all," he said. "My locator wasn't supposed to shoot, but I gave him a break because we were getting close to the end of our stint, and he didn't have knees. In the end, you want to leave with the feeling that you did something, that you weren't a sniper during exercises only. So, after I had a few hits, I suggested to him that we switch. He got around 28 knees there, I'd say."
Such testimonies are further validated by occasional video footage of Israeli snipers cheering after shooting Palestinian children at the fence. In April 2018, a particular video of cheering soldiers, along with the kind of dialogue that indicates that Israelis have no regard for Palestinian lives whatsoever, was leaked to international media. Even CNN reported it.
This violence is not confined to Gaza. The debate on Israel's "shoot-to-kill" policy in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories has been raging for years. In 2017, Human Rights Watch linked the increased number of Palestinians killed at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers to the violent discourse emanating from the Israeli government itself.
"[HRW] has documented numerous statements since October 2015, by senior Israeli politicians, including the police minister and defence minister, calling on police and soldiers to shoot to kill suspected attackers, irrespective of whether lethal force is actually strictly necessary to protect life," said the organisation.
The above issue was highlighted in the execution of the already incapacitated Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif in the occupied city of Al-Khalil — Hebron — in March 2016, and in the killing of Ahmad Erekat at a military checkpoint in the West Bank in July last year. Not only did Erekat pose no immediate threat to the lives of the occupation soldiers, but also, according to a statement by 83 Palestinian and international NGOs, he "was then left to bleed to death for an hour and a half, while the Israeli occupying forces denied him access to medical care."
Given the disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties which, at times, fill the mortuaries in Gaza, it is impossible to understand what the soldiers, their generals and politicians actually want when they say "untie our hands". Far more bewildering is the international community's apathy while Israelis debate the number of Palestinians to be killed. How many more must die for the sake of Israel's "security"?