May. 15, 2018 5:03 PM EDT
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s high-tech military is coming under scathing international criticism for its use of live fire that killed scores of Palestinian protesters across a border — even if the protesting Gazans were burning tires, launching fiery kites into Israeli farms and in some cases trying to rip apart a border fence.
The Israeli army has staunchly defended its actions. It points to the violent history of Gaza’s Hamas rulers, says there have been bombing and shooting attacks against its forces and fears a mass border breach. It also says that in the open terrain of the Gaza border, with troops easily exposed, its military options are limited.
But with the death toll rising, and hundreds of unarmed people among the casualties, the criticism is mounting.
Here is a closer look at the debate over Israel’s use of live fire:
WHAT HAS HAPPENED?
The border protests are aimed largely at breaking a decade-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt against Hamas. The blockade, which Israel says is needed to keep Hamas from arming, has decimated Gaza’s economy.
Since the Hamas-led protests began on March 30, more than 110 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 wounded by live fire, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
On Monday alone, 59 people were killed and over 1,200 wounded — making it by far the bloodiest day of cross-border violence since a 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.
The vast majority of the casualties have been unarmed protesters, according to Palestinian officials.
Monday’s bloodshed triggered widespread criticism from around the world, with many countries, including European allies like Germany and Belgium, accusing Israel of using disproportionate force and calling for independent investigations.
The U.N. Security Council held a special session that began with a moment of silence for the Palestinians who were killed. In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said Israel has repeatedly violated international norms by using deadly live fire to repel protesters.
Office spokesman Rupert Colville said rules under international law “have been ignored again and again” and that lethal force should only be a “last resort.”
“It seems anyone is liable to be shot dead or injured: women, children, press personnel, first responders, bystanders,” he said.
In Israel, six human rights groups have asked the Supreme Court to declare as unlawful any regulations that allow soldiers to open fire at unarmed civilians.
Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah, one of those groups, said soldiers are supposed to use lethal force only if their lives are in immediate danger. He said the large number of people shot far from the border or struck in their upper bodies has raised additional questions about military policies.
“They are shooting in an arbitrary way for two reasons, to punish and to deter,” he said.
Israel says it uses live fire only as a last resort. It says it begins with verbal warnings and leaflets dropped from the sky that urge people to stay away from the border, and then resorts to “non-lethal” tactics such as tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The military says snipers are permitted to open fire only when all other means have failed. Snipers are supposed to aim at protesters’ legs and can shoot only with approval from a commander.
Military officials say that tear gas is often ineffective in the windy conditions. It says it needs to keep its soldiers far from the crowds, and that other non-lethal means, such as rubber-coated bullets, are ineffective from a long distance.
THE HAMAS FACTOR
The Israeli military says the protests are taking place in the context of a long-running armed conflict with Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has fought three wars with Israel over the past decade and killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.
It says open-fire regulations are subject to the rules of armed conflict, which provide greater leeway for the use of lethal force.
Israel says the protests are not peaceful, and that Hamas militants are using the crowds as cover to carry out attacks.
Protesters have stormed the border fence, set it on fire with burning tires and ripped apart pieces of the structure with wire cutters. They have hurled firebombs and stones toward soldiers and sent flaming kites over the border to set Israeli agricultural fields on fire. One Israeli soldier has been wounded.
The army on Tuesday released a video that appeared to show protesters detonating several explosions near the border. It also said its forces had killed a squad of Hamas gunmen who opened fire at troops.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said 14 of those killed Monday were actively involved in carrying out attacks.
Israel’s greatest fear is that Hamas will stage a mass breach of the fence and enter nearby Israeli communities to kidnap or kill Israelis.
Such concerns are not unfounded. In 2006, Hamas-linked militants tunneled into Israel and captured a soldier, holding him for five years until he was freed in a prisoner swap.
Hamas also infiltrated into Israel through tunnels during the 2014 war, killing at least six Israeli soldiers, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Since the war, Israel has uncovered and destroyed several additional tunnels.
Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar, who was released in the 2011 prisoner swap, has hinted that a border breach is possible.
“We have no choice,” Conricus said. “There’s no way we have the leniency or the flexibility to allow rioters to tear down the fence, for terrorists to come through following those rioters and get into Israel and terrorize Israeli civilians.”