The Israeli military has been urged to investigate the recent shootings of at least 12 impoverished Palestinian teenagers and young men collecting gravel in an effort to eke out an income within 800 metres of Gaza’s heavily guarded northern border.
The youngsters - including at least two under 15 - were shot and injured as they gathered the gravel to sell cement manufacturers struggling to meet a fraction of the demand for building materials still banned from entering Gaza through Israel.
The shootings - highlighted in reports this week by two human rights agencies - are the latest development to come to light in a more general military enforcement of a "buffer zone" inside Gaza’s border.
The UN says this has resulted in 22 civilian deaths and 146 injuries since the end of Israel's 2008-9 military onslaught on the Hamas-controlled territory. A 91-year-old man and two other civilians were killed last month as they grazed sheep close to the border.
Mohammed Mogah, 16, was shot in his side at what he claims was a range of 700 metres - well beyond the 300-metre border exclusion zone declared in 2008 by the Israeli military.
Showing the scars from the entry and exit wound, he told The Independent he had been sifting sand from a pile of gravel in a cooking sieve, with his back to the border, before loading it onto a donkey cart, when he was hit.
He said he had been in an area of the long demolished Erez Industrial Zone, when he was shot on June 23. Other Palestinians, including a team with a bulldozer, were also busy working in the rubble. He said there were several shots but he did not see anyone else hit.
“Some people ran away and others lay on the ground. I’m new to this job. It was only the third time I had gone. I will never go again.”
Asked why he had gone to work in an area known to be dangerous, he said he thought he had "no option." He added: "If someone gives me other work I will do it." Mohammed lives with 14 members of his extended family in three rooms in a run down part of Jabalya.
His unemployed father, also called Mohammed, said that he had to keep his son back from his government school because he could not afford books or other items like stationery and school clothes. Palestinians adults say they can earn around £8,70 a day collecting gravel.
Mr Mogah, who has four other children, was a building worker in Israel until permits were withdrawn in 2006 and says that a 400-shekel [£70] a month insurance payment for serious burns he sustained while working in Israel stopped coming after the 2008-9 invasion. “We are in a bad state,” he said. “We are below zero.”
One of ten injured Palestinian boys who testified to the human rights agency Defence for Children International said that he had been told to look out for birds flying from the military watchtower at the Erez crossing.
The flight of disturbed birds meant that soldiers were climbing the tower and that shooting could be imminent.
The Israeli human rights agency B'tselem is calling on the Israeli military to conduct an investigation of shootings of gravel collectors.
It has also compiled a dossier on the enforcement of the buffer zone elsewhere along the border as evidence to the official Turkel Commission investigation into the background of the Israeli boarding on the Turkish-led flotilla which sought to break the Gaza embargo in May. Nine Turks were killed in the ensuing clashes.
The UN's Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in August that Israel had been using live fire to enforce an exclusion zone of up to 1000-1,500 metres along the eastern border.
While acknowledging that operations by armed Palestinian factions in some border areas had resulted in the deaths of 41 Palestinian militants and four Israeli soldiers since the beginning of 2009, it pointed out that the restricted zone covered 35 percent of Gaza’s farmland. It said a combination of razed farmland and enforcement of the exclusion zone had cost Palestinian farmers around $50m a year.
The Israeli military said yesterday that “hostile terrorist activity” in “close proximity to the security fence surrounding the Gaza strip” had included since the beginning of the year 60 incidents of small arms fire, 34 of improvised explosive device (IED) plantings, and 15 incidents of anti-tank missile fire.
On occasions militants had disguised themselves as civilians, including one with a mule cart packed with explosives.
Palestinians had been clearly warned with leaflets since 2008 that a 300-metre buffer zone would be closed to Palestinians. The military added that it acted to prevent harm to civilians and “any complaint expressed regarding the conduct of IDF soldiers will be taken into consideration.”
*Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday offered to seek a resumption of the moratorium on building in Jewish West Bank settlements if Palestinians recognised Israel as a Jewish state. Mr Netanyahu, speaking at the opening of a new session of the Knesset said he would request ministers to resume the partial settlement freeze which ended last month if the Palestinians “say unequivocally that it recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people”.