B'Tselem, a leading human rights group in Israel, urged Israeli forces in a rare step Wednesday to disobey open-fire orders unless Gaza protesters pose an imminent threat to soldiers' lives.
The non-profit organization said the appeal is a last-ditch attempt to prevent more bloodshed on the volatile Gaza-Israel border.
Nineteen Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since last Friday, including 14 in border protests. The IDF revealed most of them to be terrorists. More large demonstrations are expected along the border this Friday.
B'Tselem has never before called on soldiers to refuse orders, but believes firing on Palestinians who pose no imminent threat to the lives of Israeli forces is "manifestly illegal," said spokesman Amit Gilutz.
"As long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply," the group said.
The Israeli military has said its tough response is justified because the protests were organized by Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction.
It said soldiers only targeted "instigators" who burned tires or threw stones and firebombs toward the border fence. The military accused Hamas of using the large crowds as cover to carry out attacks.
In one instance, a pair of gunmen approached the border, and the army said protesters also tried to plant explosives along the fence in several instances.
But in other incidents, some caught on video, those shot appeared to have been unarmed and not actively involved in violence at the time they were struck.
B'Tselem said that while Israel has the right to defend its border, it is still bound by international norms for the use of live fire. The group said that simply approaching the fence, and even damaging it, does not provide grounds for using lethal force, and that Israel had other options for dispersing the crowds.
"The provisions limit its use to instances involving tangible and immediate mortal danger, and only in the absence of any other alternative," the group said. "Israel cannot simply decide that it is not bound by these rules."
Israel's military is the country's most respected institution, and such criticism, even from a dovish group, is relatively rare. B'Tselem said it would be publishing newspaper ads and take other steps to publicize its campaign.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the country's defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Tuesday that the military will not change its tactics and warned that anyone who approaches the border is risking his life.
On B'Tselem's campaign, Lieberman said, "I have a practical suggestion: B'Tselem's director is welcomed to convince thousands of Gazans this Friday to stop placing explosive charges near roads, fire at soldiers and violate our sovereignty, and to just safely walk home."
"If that doesn't work," Lieberman continued, "I guess we'll need the IDF."
The tough comments raised the possibility of more bloodshed this Friday, when another mass protest is expected.
On Wednesday, the head of the Arab League called on the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate the deaths of Palestinians killed in Gaza since Friday. Ahmed Aboul-Gheit also said he supports a call by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for an independent investigation of the events on the border.
Hamas is organizing six weeks of on-and-off border protests in what it says is a campaign to draw attention to a crippling border blockade. The campaign, named the Great March of Return, Is also meant to advocate for the Palestinian refugees's right of return to what is now Israel.
Both Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 in an attempt to weaken the militant group. But the measures have devastated Gaza's economy, while failing to oust Hamas.
Israel said Wednesday it has arrested 10 Palestinians suspected of planning an attack against a navy ship off the Gaza coast.
The Shin Bet security service said the interrogation of the cell's alleged leader revealed a plan to send a decoy boat from Gaza to distract the navy ship while another would fire a rocket at it. The plan called for militants to then try to abduct wounded sailors and keep them as bargaining chips for future prisoner swaps.
Amin Jamaa was being indicted Wednesday at a court in southern Israel.
The Shin Bet identified him and his cohorts as members of the Islamic Jihad militant group and said they were abusing the easing of Israeli restrictions on Gaza fisherman to collect intelligence on Israel's naval operations along the coast.
"This is proof of the true intentions of the terror groups in Gaza who are trying to hide their murderous plans by staging provocations along our border whose sole purpose is to provide cover for terrorists to carry out their attacks against Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Daoud Shehab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said he had no information about the Israeli announcement but that his group was involved in "open confrontation" against it.
"It's also our right to look for suitable ways to force Israel to release Palestinian prisoners," he added.
Protests are planned to continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel's founding. The date is mourned by Palestinians as their "nakba," or "catastrophe," when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 War of Independence over Israel's creation. Most of Gaza's 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
Yoav Zitun and Shahar Hay contributed to this report.