Hundreds of Palestinians converged on the Gaza Strip’s border fence with Israel on Friday, trying to rip through it before drawing Israeli fire in one of the most violent incidents yet in five weeks of protests.
Three people were killed and over 300 hurt in Friday’s rallies, the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry said, as thousands of Palestinians converged on the border with Israel for a fifth round of weekly protests.
In a statement, the Israeli military said it “thwarted” an attempted infiltration by Palestinian protesters.
It said “hundreds of rioters” tried to burn the fence and enter the Israel. It said the crowd threw explosives, firebombs and rocks, and that troops opened fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement” and halted the crowd.
It released a video showing a young Palestinian man placing a burning tire along the fence in an apparent attempt to set it on fire. In another, a small group lobs stones at an Israeli military vehicle on the other side of the fence.
The footage also showed large numbers of Gazans close to the border fence.
Footage filmed inside Gaza showed youths at a barbed wire fence, being urged to “cut, cut.”
In other incidents, the military said Palestinian crowds rolled burning tires, hurled rocks and flew kites with flaming objects attached with the goal of damaging the fence and other Israeli targets. It also released a photo appearing to show a group of youths tugging at barbed wire along the fence.
Israel has repeatedly expressed concern over the possibility of a mass breach, in which Gazans would stream across with terrorists among them, wreaking havoc. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has vowed in the past that protesters would “breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” referring to the major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.
Gaza officials said about half of the 300 wounded were hit by live fire, with the other half hurt by tear gas.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited a protest camp in the southern town of Rafah, vowing larger protests in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and among Palestinian refugees in other countries on May 15. “Our people will not slow down the protests until they get their rights,” he said.
Haniyeh, who was photographed holding a slingshot, declared that the protests “have confused the enemy” and that they constitute “part of the route to liberation.”
Hamas officials were quoted on Hadashot TV news on Saturday saying they would try to expand the protests to the West Bank in coming weeks, and that they would continue past mid-May when the US is to open its embassy in Jerusalem to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence (according to the Gregorian calendar).
Meanwhile a top UN official urged Israel to refrain from using “excessive force” against demonstrators.
The number of protesters appeared to be down from previous weeks. The demonstrations have progressively dwindled, with the first event on March 30 drawing around 30,000 people, and last Friday’s rally managing only around a tenth of that.
The protests, which are backed and encouraged by Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, were originally dubbed by their Palestinian organizers as nonviolent, but Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, publicly supported the protests and declared that their ultimate goal was to erase the border and liberate Palestine. Rioters have burned tires, hurled firebombs and rocks at Israeli troops, flown flaming kites over the border and repeatedly attempted to sabotage the security fence.
Israel says Hamas uses the marches as cover for terrorist attacks.
The Israeli army says its troops only open fire at demonstrators who engage in violence, or who attempt to breach the barrier separating the territory from Israel. Palestinian videos have emerged that purport to show soldiers shooting protesters who did not pose a threat. The army has accused Hamas of fabricating video footage or releasing only partial clips.
The military also says Hamas is using the protests as cover to damage the border fence and prepare to infiltrate and carry out attacks.
According to Gaza’s health ministry the latest deaths brought the death toll in the border clashes since March 30 to 44, with over 1,500 said injured by live fire.
Hamas acknowledged that five of its terrorists were among the fatalities after the first Friday demonstration, but has since refrained for acknowledging whether its men are among the dead. Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
The UN rights chief on Friday urged Israeli forces to stop using “excessive force” against the protesters and called for troops who have committed abuses “to be held accountable” for them.
“Every week, we witness instances of use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement.
“Warnings by the United Nations and others have seemingly gone unheeded, as the approach of the security forces from week to week does not seem to have changed,” he added. “The staggering number of injuries caused by live ammunition only confirms the sense that excessive force has been used against demonstrators — not once, not twice, but repeatedly.
The statement made no mention of Hamas, and did not at any point condemn violent acts by protesters.
“It is difficult to see how tire-burning or stone-throwing, or even Molotov cocktails thrown from a significant distance at heavily protected security forces in defensive positions can be seen to constitute such threat,” he said.
“I am extremely concerned that by the end of today — and next Friday, and the Friday after that — more unarmed Palestinians who were alive this morning will have been killed, simply because, while exercising their right to protest, they approached a fence, or otherwise attracted the attention of the soldiers on the other side,” Zeid said. “Israel’s failure to consistently prosecute violations committed by members of its security forces, encourages them to use deadly force against their fellow unarmed human beings, even when they present no threat.”
Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in response that “The High Commissioner’s decision to condemn a democracy that is diligently defending its sovereignty, while completely ignoring the terrorists of Hamas as they use children for human shields, provides a tailwind for terror and encourages the continued exploitation of civilians.
“This statement proves once again that the High Commissioner is not focused on human rights, but only with obsessively criticizing Israel,” he adds.
On Thursday the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, lashed out at Hamas, accusing the Palestinian terror group of “using children as cannon fodder” at the rallies.
“Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel,” Haley told a UN Security Council meeting convened to discuss the situation in the Middle East.
Ahead of the meeting, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem urged the Security Council to protect Palestinians taking part in the demonstrations on the border.
B’Tselem gave a list of names and ages of Palestinians it said were killed by Israel during the demonstrations.
The group described the victims as “unarmed” and said their deaths were “the predictable outcome of the manifestly illegal rules of engagement implemented during the demonstrations, of ordering soldiers to use lethal gunfire against unarmed demonstrators who pose no mortal danger.”
B’Tselem singled out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot as being primarily responsible for the deaths.
The group said that any Israeli investigation into the deaths was likely to be “a whitewash,” and would be solely to “forestall and prevent investigations by international bodies.”
The UN’s special envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, told the council that both Israel and Hamas had to do more to prevent the deaths.
“There has also been an increasing number of dangerous incidents at the fence, including the planting of improvised explosive devices — at least one of which has detonated — the throwing of Molotov cocktails, and attempts to breach the fence,” he said.
“Israel must calibrate its use of force and minimize the use of live fire. Lethal force should be used only as a last resort,” he continued. “Hamas and the leaders of the demonstrations must keep protesters away from the Gaza fence and prevent all violent actions and provocations.
The Israeli army says it mainly uses less-lethal means, as well as pinpoint fire against chief instigators. It says its sharpshooters target only those who attack IDF soldiers with stones and Molotov cocktails, actively try to damage the security fence, or attempt to place improvised explosive devices along the security fence that could later be used in attacks against Israeli patrols.
Danon on Thursday also accused Hamas of using innocents as “human shields.”
“Throughout the riots of the past month, Hamas has used innocent Palestinian women and children as human shields, while they cowered behind in safety,” he said. “The terrorists are hiding while allowing, even hoping, for their people to die. This is evil in its purest form.”
He told the international body that Israel does everything in its power to minimize civilian deaths, but that the main goal of the army was to defend the country.
“Israel has an obligation to protect our citizens and we will do so while minimizing civilian casualties to the other side but let me be clear: Israel will never apologize for defending our country,” he said. “It is Hamas that is fully responsible for every Palestinian injury and death that has resulted from these incidents.”
At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.
No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.