Hamas accused of jailing bus drivers who refuse to take Gazans to protests

Israel’s COGAT head releases recording of bus company owner saying terror group replacing drivers who refuse to ferry Palestinians with those who will

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian protestors shout slogans during clashes with Israeli forces following a tent city gathering at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City on April 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS
Palestinian protestors shout slogans during clashes with Israeli forces following a tent city gathering at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City on April 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS

Hamas has jailed bus drivers who refused to ferry Gazans to a protest march on the Palestinian enclave’s border with Israel, the Defense Ministry’s liaison to the Palestinians charged Thursday.

A phone recording released by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories claimed to show that Hamas, the terror group that rules the strip, had forced drivers to bring protesters to the sites of protests last Friday.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, released a statement titled “Hamas is terrorizing its own people,” which was accompanied by a recording

In the clip of a phone conversation between a COGAT official and a bus company owner, the Israeli security official can be heard warning the Palestinian against “taking part in the terror” by driving Gazans to the protest as the companies did last week.

The driver responds by insisting that he and others had heeded Israeli warnings, but that those who refused to comply with Hamas pressure were jailed and replaced by other drivers willing to ferry Palestinians to the protests.

“We are not helping. Hamas came, arrested us, and filed a complaint against us,” he contended. “What are we supposed to do in such a situation?”

A Palestinian youth collects money and tires in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 4, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Prior to Last Friday’s protest, Israel warned owners of Gaza bus companies against ferrying Palestinians to the mass demonstrations near the border with Israel.

“We have contacted the owners of more than 20 bus companies in the Gaza Strip who received money from Hamas to drive the Palestinians to the violent demonstrations. We warned that measures would be taken against the owners and their companies,” Mordechai told US-based Arabic-language satellite TV channel Alhurra Wednesday.

The Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of the Government’s Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. (Screenshot)

Hamas said that several owners of bus companies had received the phone calls in the past few days warning them not to assist in the organization of the protests. The terror group added that Israeli security officers had threatened to take punitive measures against the owners and their companies, including banning them from operating at border crossings with Israel.

The release of the recording Thursday came as Gazans and the Israel Defense Forces geared up for what are expected to be fresh protests Friday as part of the same so-called March of Return.

Last Friday, over 30,000 Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza border, in what Israel describes as a riot orchestrated by the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza, and what Palestinians say was supposed to be a peaceful protest.

There were discrepancies in Palestinian reports on the Gaza death toll from Friday. While Hamas claimed Monday that 18 had died, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority had the number at 16. Israel has no official death toll figures. Over 1,000 were reported injured.

On Thursday, the Hamas-run health ministry announced the death of an additional Palestinian protester who was hit by Israeli fire during border clashes last Friday.

His death brings the toll from Friday’s clashes to 20, according to the ministry’s figures.

Palestinian protesters carry an injured comrade during clashes with Israeli forces following a protest along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City on April 1, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Mohammed ABED)

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence. Manelis said on Friday evening that the army had 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.

The IDF on Saturday named and detailed 10 of the dead as members of terror groups including Hamas. (Hamas had earlier acknowledged five of them were its members.) Islamic Jihad later claimed an 11th.

Palestinians have pointed to a handful of filmed instances from the demonstration which appeared to show protesters being shot at while posing no threat to IDF troops. The army has claimed such videos are fabricated by Hamas.

In the lead up to this Friday’s demonstration, Gazans were assembling thousands of tires to burn and roll at the coastal enclave’s border with the Jewish state.

Organizers are calling the march’s second recurrence “the day of the tire,” and the hashtag has been trending on social media.

At the same time, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that Israel will not be changing its policies toward Palestinians rioting along the Gaza security fence and has brushed off criticism that the army used a heavy hand during Friday’s protests.

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