Israeli Arab lawmakers on Saturday voiced support for the Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border and joined left-wing calls for an investigation into the Israeli military response to the clashes, as the leaders of other center-left opposition parties squarely backed the Israel Defense Forces.
The political opposition was split on the use of force against the Gazan protesters, with Avi Gabbay’s Zionist Union and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid backing the military on Saturday. Gabbay said he had “no doubt our soldiers did everything to reduce the number of casualties” and Lapid maintained he was “proud” of the troops.
Those responses were in stark contrast to comments by the Joint (Arab) List and Meretz parties that forcefully condemned the use of live fire.
“The fire against the protesters again proves that Israel chooses a path of force and deliberate violence,” said the Joint (Arab) List in a statement. “All nations that have been under occupation fought against their occupiers, and the Palestinian nation is like any other nation.”
The Israeli military on Saturday night identified 10 of the 15 people reported killed during violent protests along the Gaza security fence as members of Palestinian terrorist groups, and published a list of their names and positions in the organizations.
The new head of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, called on Israeli authorities earlier on Saturday to open an investigation into the clashes. She also intimated that the Israeli military appeared to be too eager in its use of deadly force.
Zandberg was backed up by her fellow lawmaker Issawi Frej, who also called for a probe. “A state whose soldiers shoot to kill in order to protect a fence is committing a moral crime,” he said.
The death toll and the footage from the events broadcast on social media and elsewhere, including a video aired on Palestinian media apparently showing an 18-year-old being shot dead while running away from the border fence, said Zandberg, “warrant an independent investigation by Israel, including a probe into the rules of engagement and the military and political readiness for the events.”
“It’s Israel’s duty to know what happened there, and it’s also in its interest [to know] to prevent another round of violence. We must not allow a ‘trigger-happy’ policy to lead to the loss of innocent lives,” she wrote on social media.
Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson, the opposition whip, hit back at Zandberg on Saturday night. “There is nothing to investigate and nothing to check, the IDF is doing all that is necessary to protect the Gaza periphery communities and the border,” he said.
Thousands of Palestinians marched to Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday in the largest such demonstration in recent memory, calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land that their ancestors fled from in the 1948 War of Independence. It was dubbed the “March of Return.”
The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli fire killed 15 Gazans during the march, and injured over 1,400, in the conflict’s deadliest single day since the 2014 Gaza war. Israeli troops used live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas to keep thousands of Gazans from trying to approach the border fence.
Hamas, a terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction, acknowledged Saturday that five members of its military wing were among the dead. It claimed they were “taking part in popular events” along with other Gazans.
The Israeli military said the Palestinian protesters threw firebombs and rocks at soldiers, rolled burning tires at them, sought to breach or damage the border fence, and in one incident opened fire.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence, adding that Gaza health officials exaggerated the number of those wounded and that several dozen at most were injured by live fire while the rest were merely shaken up by tear gas and other riot dispersal means.
Manelis said Friday that the army faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. He said the IDF used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence. “All the fatalities were aged 18-30, several of the fatalities were known to us, and at least two of them were members of Hamas commando forces,” he said.
Manelis reiterated Saturday that Israel “will not allow a massive breach of the fence into Israeli territory.”
He said that Hamas and other Gaza terror groups are using protests as a cover for staging attacks. If violence continues, “we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places too,” he said.
The violence abated on Friday evening and smaller protests were reported on Saturday.
Protest organizers have said mass marches would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. Palestinians mark that date as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands left or were forced to leave during the 1948 War of Independence. The vast majority of Gaza’s two million people are their descendants.
Hamas praised the march and the planned 6-week camp demonstration, with Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh saying on Friday that the protests marked the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to “all of Palestine.”
“We are here to declare today that our people will not agree to keep the ‘right of return’ only as a slogan,” he said.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said in a speech to protesters Friday that “The March of Return… will not stop until we remove this transient border. Friday’s protests, he said, “mark the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and return [of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes inside Israel].”
The “March of Return,” Sinwar added, “affirms that our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine.
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.