The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Palestinian protester was shot by an Israeli sniper. One celebrating soldier called it a ‘legendary clip.’

Smoke from burning tires separates Palestinian protesters, background, and Israeli soldiers on April 6. (Jack Guez /AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said Tuesday it has completed an initial investigation into a video clip showing what appears to be a group of Israeli soldiers loudly celebrating as a sniper shoots and wounds a Palestinian demonstrator standing inside the Gaza Strip near Israel's border fence.

A statement from the army said the incident took place on Dec. 22, 2017, and depicts “a short part of the response to a violent riot.” It said the man who was shot was suspected of organizing the incident and that he was injured, not killed. The soldier who recorded the short video, the army statement said, was not part of the unit that fired on the protesters and is now being investigated for “unauthorized filming of an operational event and distribution of the filmed material.”

The short clip — first posted Monday and widely shared on social media — was seemingly shot through the lens of a rifle scope or binoculars. Soldiers watch a few Palestinian youths running and then walking along the border area. In the few minutes they are caught on screen, the Palestinians do not appear to be engaged in any hostile acts.

“The moment he stops, you drop him,” says one soldier. “Do you have a bullet in the chamber?”

“Yes,” comes a reply, presumably from the sniper.

Then he complains about not getting a clear enough view because of the rolls of barbed wire fencing along the border and about his target ducking each time he gears up to shoot. The soldiers then debate whether to take out the person wearing a pink shirt or a blue shirt right before the crack of a shot is heard and one of the figures crumples.

Then one of the soldiers whoops: “What a video. They’re running to evacuate him. Yeah, of course I filmed it.”

As the injured person is carried out of view, one of the soldiers laughs: “He fell into the air with his legs up like that. ...”

One soldier calls it a “legendary clip” and then curses, calling the Palestinian a “son of a whore.” All the soldiers were speaking Hebrew.

The video surfaced at a particularly tense time, following two weeks of deadly Gaza protests in which Palestinians faced off against Israel’s military at the border. Nine Palestinians were reported killed Friday, including a photojournalist wearing a vest marked PRESS. The previous week, 22 protesters were killed.

[Burning tires, tear gas and live fire: Gaza clashes turn deadly]

Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 1,000 people were injured by Israel during the protests, including a few hundred from gunshot wounds.

The Israeli military said it was forced to use live ammunition to prevent demonstrators from breaking through the border fence. It said Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza and is seen as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, is exploiting the unrest to carry out terrorist attacks. The army estimated that 20,000 people turned out to protest last Friday, a significantly lower number than the previous week.

[He was wearing a vest marked ‘PRESS.’ He was shot dead covering a protest in Gaza.] 

But organizers of the Friday protests have said they will continue until the May 15 commemoration of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, marking the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians seven decades ago upon Israel’s creation. It is also the date that the United States plans to officially move its embassy to Jerusalem.

In response to the video, which was first tweeted Monday by Or Heller, a military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 News, the army said it was examining the matter in more depth.

On Tuesday, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, defended the soldiers and said they should not be criticized.

“Anyone who was ever on the battlefield knows that to sit in Tel Aviv or studios and judge soldiers according to their comments, when they are busy defending our borders, is not something serious,” he told Israeli Army Radio.

He also tweeted in Hebrew: “They guard our lives. We guard them. We do not abandon soldiers.”

[The military trial that’s tearing Israel apart]

Bennett was the first minister to rise to the defense of soldier Elor Azaria, who was found guilty last year of shooting an already neutralized Palestinian assailant in Hebron on March 24, 2016. Azaria was put on trial by the military for his actions and sentenced to 18 months in jail. Bennett has consistently called for Azaria to be pardoned for his actions.