A failed attempt to plant a bomb at the border cost a Palestinian militant his life. But the seizure of his body drew harsh criticism within Israel.
A macabre tug of war over the body of a Palestinian militant on the Gaza-Israel border, captured Sunday on video in broad daylight, prompted a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza met by retaliatory Israeli airstrikes late Sunday.
Israel’s use of heavy machinery to retrieve a militant’s body earlier in the day drew harsh criticism even within the country. But Israel’s hawkish defense minister, Naftali Bennett, defended the army’s seizure of the body as appropriate, suggesting it could be used as a bargaining chip to recover the remains of two Israeli soldiers who have been held in Gaza since 2014.
The day of tensions began around 6:30 a.m. when, Israel said, its soldiers spotted two militants from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group placing an explosive near the border east of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Israel later released a surveillance video that it said showed the two men approaching the fence, and a photo of the explosive.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s armed wing has repeatedly tried to provoke violence between Israel and Gaza in recent months. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has tried mightily to maintain quiet before elections set for March 2.
According to a rival lawmaker, Avigdor Liberman, Mr. Netanyahu even sent the chief of the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, and a top general to Qatar to implore Qatari leaders to continue cash infusions to Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, to help keep the peace.
In the clash at the Gaza-Israel border early Sunday, Israeli forces fired an antitank weapon at the two militants. One was killed, the other wounded, Gaza officials said. Palestinian Islamic Jihad identified the dead man as Muhammad al-Naem, 27, a member of its military wing.
An Israeli military spokesman said the two militants had been on Israeli soil, despite the fact that they were on the Gaza side of the Israeli security barrier. The barrier itself lies slightly inside Palestinian territory. The militants were making at least their third attempt to plant explosives at the fence, the military said.
Soldiers had to be sure the dead man had not been wearing a suicide vest or carrying other explosives, the spokesman said, so Israel sent in heavy machinery to collect the man’s body.
But a crowd of Palestinian onlookers rushed forward to try to recover it, and rather than retreat, the front-end loader kept at its task. Israeli soldiers shot at the Palestinians, wounding at least one.
While other Palestinians carried off the injured man, the Israeli machine repeatedly scraped at the earth, trying to catch the dead man’s body in the teeth of its scoop. When it had done so and turned back toward Israel, its retreat covered by a tank, the body could be seen dangling.
The images prompted Palestinian Islamic Jihad to vow revenge, and just after 5:30 p.m., the first of several rocket barrages was fired into Israeli territory. Israel waited till after 10 p.m. before retaliating with airstrikes and quickly said it had hit a rocket-launching team.
The Israeli military said it had targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad with airstrikes in Syria and the Gaza Strip.
The scene at the border drew harsh criticism even within Israel. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, sent a letter to the Israeli chief military advocate general demanding a criminal investigation. It called the rough handling of the body a war crime and a “blatant” violation of international criminal law, human rights and humanitarian law.
Yariv Oppenheimer, a former director of the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, called it “shameful and shocking,” adding, “All the atrocities and crimes we do will be in vain, boomerang.”
And Ofer Cassif, a Jewish lawmaker from the predominantly Arab Joint List, called the “abduction” of the body “an act of vampirism and of nauseating blood thirst.”
“This is what Netanyahu and Bennett have to offer: siege, killing and the abduction of bodies,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must put an end to their death festivities.’‘
Mr. Bennett, a right-wing lawmaker who was named defense minister in November, responded on Twitter that he was “tired of the hypocritical criticism of the left against the ‘inhumanity’ of using the bulldozer to bring us the body of a terrorist who tried to murder (!) Israelis.”
Rather, he said, it was the liberals who were inhumane.
“Hamas holds the bodies of Hadar and Oron,” he wrote referring to the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, that Hamas has been holding. “I back up the army that killed the terrorists and collected the body. That is how it should be done. Against terrorists we will act with force.”
But Elior Levy, an Israeli reporter who covers Palestinian affairs, assailed what he called Mr. Bennett’s “glorification of grabbing a tattered body of a wretched terrorist.” Pointing to the rockets, he added: “What do you think, Minister of Defense? Was it worth it?”
Mr. Bennett declared on Nov. 27 that Israel would no longer release the bodies of slain assailants no matter which group they belonged to. Until that point, Israel had routinely withheld the remains only of slain Hamas militants because Hamas is holding the bodies of the two Israelis.
Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli citizens, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed. Both went into Gaza as civilians of their own accord and have been held there incommunicado for years.
The border episode on Sunday came just two days after another scene involving an Israeli bulldozer elicited outrage.
On Friday, an Israeli bulldozer trying to suppress protests in Kafr Qaddum, west of the West Bank city of Nablus, shoved heavy slabs of stone at high speed down a crowded street, slamming one into a Palestinian ambulance and injuring at least one person.
Israel said the bulldozer had been clearing the stones from a roadblock set by protesters.