JERUSALEM — 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 rocketfire from Gaza and was 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.
Israeli forces fired an anti-tank weapon at the two militants. One was killed, the other wounded. Palestinian Islamic Jihad identified the dead man as Muhammad al-Naem, 27, a member of its military wing.
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, 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 until after 10 p.m. before retaliating with airstrikes and quickly said it had hit a rocket-launching team.
The scene at the border drew harsh criticism even within Israel.
Bennett declared Nov. 27 that Israel would no longer release the bodies of slain assailants no matter which group they belonged to.