It is difficult to imagine the pain the Bakr family must have felt in July 2014, when an Israel Defense Force (IDF) missile killed four of their children, cousins Ismail, 9; Ahed, 10; Zakariya, 10; and Mohammad, 11, as they played football on the beach in Gaza.
Today, they grieve again, after IDF forces fatally shot another family member, Mohammad Bakr, 25 years old and the father of two, while he fished with two brothers, Omran and Fadi, and a cousin on May 15.
Citing concerns about weapons smuggling, the Israeli navy, which patrols Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, limits Palestinian fishing to a zone south of the Israel-Gaza border and north of the Egyptian border, up to six nautical miles (recently extended on a temporary basis to nine) west of the Gaza coast. Omran told Human Rights Watch that an Israeli naval boat approached their small fishing boat as they sailed in the permitted fishing zone, about 1.3 nautical miles south of the northern maritime border and 3.5 nautical miles from the western boundary.
To avoid arrest or damage to their equipment they turned on their engine and headed southeast toward the Gaza harbor, Omran said. Within two minutes, the Israeli patrol came beside them and soldiers fired live and rubber bullets at the boat. Mohammad clutched the engine, hoping to keep the Israelis from firing on it, Omran said. A bullet struck Mohammad in the chest. He died later that day.
At the time, an IDF spokesman told reporters the boat had “deviated from the designated fishing zone” and that forces fired on it after fishermen ignored warning shots and advanced further out to sea.
International human rights law, applicable in policing situations, permits the intentional use of lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life. Even accepting the IDF narrative, this standard was not met.
So far this year, one other fisherman died and six were injured in confrontations at sea with Israeli forces, according to the Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group, recently concluded that Israel’s Gaza closure and “harassment of fishermen” have been “destroying Gaza’s fishing sector,” with 95 percent of fishermen living below the poverty line.
The IDF says it is investigating the incident. It also investigated the killing of the Bakr boys in 2014, only to exonerate itself from any wrongdoing, insisting that forces intended to strike militants they reasonably believed to be fleeing a Hamas “compound,” even though a witness told Human Rights Watch that the children were running in the open waving their arms when struck. Laws of war require attackers to do everything feasible to verify that the target is a legitimate military objective and assume that people are civilians, not combatants.
Given the Israeli military’s constant failure to credibly investigate potential wrongdoing and hold violators to account, it bears a significant responsibility to demonstrate to the Bakr family that this time will be different.