Israeli soldiers arrest two Palestinian protesters who tried to approach the fence at the de facto border with Gaza. (Mohammed Saber/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Fourteen-year-old Wisal Sheikh Khalil had wire cutters out and was trying to break through Gaza’s boundary fence into Israel when she was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Monday, according to her younger brother, who was with her at the time.

She was one of at least 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during protests this week along the fence, according to local health officials.

Israel’s sharpshooters, looking down from their nests on mounds of earth on the other side of the fence, have been permitted to use lethal force against those “endangering” the barrier, Israeli military officials say. These officials also say that Israeli soldiers have been allowed to use live ammunition to shoot “instigators” among “rioters” on the de facto border.

In both cases, the orders are to aim for the legs, they say, though Khalil was shot in the head.

The Israeli military declines to go into further detail about its rules of engagement, saying they are classified. But human rights groups say the few details provided by the Israeli military make clear that the orders given to soldiers are illegal. These groups accuse the Israeli military of not making enough effort to use other means of dispersing crowds. 

Israeli officials say the soldiers are operating within international law against a mob led by the militant group Hamas that wants to break into Israel and carry out terrorist attacks. 

About 1,360 Palestinians were shot over the course of about eight hours Monday, the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said. All the dead were shot on the Palestinian side of the fence, and the border fence, though damaged, was never breached. No Israeli soldiers were reported injured.

Israel has drawn broad international criticism for its alleged use of excessive force and is facing questions about why protests by mostly unarmed Palestinians ended in such horrific bloodshed. Images and eyewitness accounts from the demonstrations appear at odds with Israel’s insistence that its military response has been precise, carefully calibrated and intended to kill only as a last resort.

“Cutting or attacking the fence is an offense,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer. “It has to be countered, but countered with reasonable force. There is no meter that I know of that would put the safety of the border fence at the same importance of the life of a 14-year-old.” 

Sfard is representing human rights groups petitioning Israel’s Supreme Court to challenge the legality of the military’s live fire rules during demonstrations in Gaza this month. He said the only legal justification for using live ammunition against civilians is if they are “posing an imminent danger to the lives of others.”  

In the state’s response, Israel has argued that the protests can’t be classified as civilian because they are part of the “armed conflict” between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. “The state opposes the applying of human rights law during an armed conflict,” Israel’s response said.

The border is defended, in general, by two layers of fence topped with barbed wire, and Israeli snipers have been positioned within 100 meters of the barrier.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said soldiers would not be shooting to kill a fence-cutter such as Khalil. He said it was a “hectic area with smoke and fires and lots of moving people.” He added, “The command that is issued to our troops is to shoot towards the legs.”

But multiple videos have surfaced apparently showing Israeli forces shooting unarmed protesters. A video in April showed a Palestinian running away from the border fence with a tire before being shot in the head.

Israeli military officials say they have not changed their rules of engagement over nearly seven weeks of protests and warned before they started that there were orders to use “a lot of force” and live ammunition if soldiers or infrastructure came under threat. At least 111 Palestinians have been killed during the protests, Gaza health officials say.

Israeli officials have lavished praise on the actions of its forces in protecting the border. After a meeting with security chiefs on Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying that the “determined actions” of the Israeli miliary had “prevented a breach of Israel’s borders.” 

The Israeli military reported an attempt to plant explosives along the fence and a shooting attack by eight Hamas militants in an armored vehicle. In such cases, Israeli forces shoot to kill, Conricus said. 

The military says Hamas uses women and children as shields and, as a justification for the armed response, says that some of those killed were known militants. Israel said that at least 24 of the Palestinians it killed on Monday were linked to Islamic Jihad or Hamas.

Before the protest Monday, Hamas leaders had riled up demonstrators, urging them to breach the fence. Most Gaza residents are the descendants of refugees displaced from areas in Israel in 1948. They demonstrated against Israel’s blockade of more than a decade and for their right of return.

“The entire border riots are conducted under the slogan of the ‘march of return.’ What is the return? To annihilate Israel,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli military who also served as director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, voicing a common Israeli view. If the military didn’t prevent them from crossing, he said, “it would be a disaster for everyone.”

Human rights groups say that fear doesn’t justify the use of deadly force against unarmed protesters when they aren’t posing an immediate threat. 

“Israel is using this nightmare scenario in order to justify the use of live ammunition,” said Amit Gilutz a spokesman for B’Tselem, which issued an advertising campaign urging soldiers not to shoot at unarmed protesters in Gaza. “But that’s a futuristic scenario that didn’t take place.”

He faulted the Israel military for failing to find a better way to disperse crowds.

“If it placed a value on the lives of Palestinians, other means are available to a very powerful, sophisticated military,” Gilutz said.

Israel’s military says it uses live ammunition only as a last resort. But the only other method used for dispersing the Gaza protesters has been tear gas, a senior Israeli military official said during a tour of the fence last week.

He said Israeli soldiers have not shot rubber-coated bullets, which have been used elsewhere, because they lack sufficient range. Trucks that spout foul-smelling water known as “skunk” that Israel regularly uses in the West Bank have not been used, he said, again adding they lacked the range and were not armored. 

Asked whether Israel could use less lethal methods to contain the protesters, Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said that such a question was an example of those who “can sit in an air-conditioned office, drinking coffee and give advice to the Israeli army that is facing off against many thousands of Palestinians.”

But Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that gathers testimony from past and serving Israeli soldiers, granting them anonymity, says Israel’s use of live ammunition should be seen in a wider context.

“That’s common that we try to suppress with a heavy response, trying to break the will of the people,” he said. He pointed to the first month of the second Palestinian uprising, or “intifada,” against Israel, when the military fired more than a million bullets in the first month alone. 

Mourners gathered at Khalil’s grandparents’ house in Maghazi, a refugee camp in central Gaza, to pay their respects. The family is not affiliated with Hamas but supports its rival, the nationalist Fatah group, with its yellow flags hanging inside. 

Khalil’s mother recounted how her daughter had been looking forward to the demonstrations for weeks. In previous weeks, she had filled bags with rocks to carry to the stone throwers at the front. Her mother said she had tried to stop her from going to the protest this week, but Khalil was determined.

“Maybe I will die, but others will get in,” she recalled her daughter saying. “She kept saying if we liberate our land, we’ll find a house. She said if I die, I’ll be less of a burden.”

Hazem Balousha contributed to this report.