IDF calls Gaza riots ‘unprecedented,’ insists it followed rules as dozens killed
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'We are protecting our home; Hamas is playing with fire'

IDF calls Gaza riots ‘unprecedented,’ insists it followed rules as dozens killed

Army spokesman says Hamas sent 12 cells to breach border; adds that despite bribes and threats, it failed to bring out the masses it hoped; blames terror group for high death toll

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinian protesters gathering along the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, May 14, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)
Palestinian protesters gathering along the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, May 14, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The Israeli military’s spokesman on Monday evening said the level of violence in Palestinians protests earlier in the day along the Gaza border was “unprecedented,” as dozens of Gazans were reportedly killed and hundreds more injured in the riots.

However, despite the fierceness of the clashes, the spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said the Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip, appeared to have failed to bring out protesters in sufficient numbers to be considered a political victory.

Manelis said Hamas deployed 12 separate terror “cells” to try to breach the border at different spots, and that they were ordered to confront and try to kidnap Israeli soldiers. All those efforts failed, he said on Hadashot TV.

The TV report said that at least 10 of those killed had been identified by the IDF as Hamas members.

Hamas, and the IDF, anticipated that over 100,000 people would participate in Monday’s demonstrations along the border fence. But ultimately, the army calculated that 40,000 people took part, though Manelis acknowledged the final tally may be higher.

Manelis said Hamas attempted to convince and pressure Palestinians to come to the border protests, tried to bribe them by offering “$100 per family that comes,” and threatened people by accusing them of being “collaborators” if they did not attend the protests.

Despite those efforts, Manelis said, “Hamas failed.”

Israeli forces take position near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018. (Thomas COEX/AFP)

Military officials said they were prepared for the protests to last into the night. Soldiers on the border, for instance, were outfitted with night-vision equipment, and the military was ready to use flares to illuminate the area.

However, as of 6:30 p.m. it appeared that the protesters were clearing the border area for the night and, according to unconfirmed reports, the organizers were calling the demonstrators away from the border.

IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis. (Israel Defense Forces)

Manelis said the IDF was expecting protests to continue on Tuesday and potentially for several additional days.

He cited three attempted attacks by armed men against Israeli forces during the riots — two teams of gunmen who opened fire at IDF soldiers and one group that tried to plant an improvised explosive device along the border — as the main proof of the riots’ ferocity, during a phone briefing with journalists.

“This is unprecedented in terms of the level of violence, compared to previous weeks,” he said.

In response to the three attacks, the Israeli army destroyed a number of Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. Fighter jets also destroyed five Hamas targets in the northern Gaza Strip, and Israeli tanks and aircraft struck two more, the army said.

According to the IDF, protesters also hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops on the other side of the border fence. Demonstrators launched dozens of so-called “terror kites” — kites laden with containers of burning fuel — into Israeli territory, sparking brush fires in open fields and farm lands across the region.

Manelis said that there were also multiple attempts to rush the border — none of them successful — and that the army has intelligence indicating Hamas and other terrorist groups have plans to try to kidnap or kill Israeli soldiers serving on the fence.

“That is intolerable to a sovereign nation,” Manelis said. “We are protecting our home.”

Manelis warned that if the level of violence and attempts to breach the border persisted, the Israeli military was prepared to carry out airstrikes against Hamas and other terrorist groups’ positions deep inside the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers walk amidst smoke from a fire in a wheat field near the Kibbutz of Nahal Oz, along the border with the Gaza Strip, which was caused by incendiaries tied to kites flown by Palestinian protesters from across the border., May 14, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Despite the protests, the Israeli military offered no special directives to residents of the region, encouraging them to go about their daily routines unless instructed otherwise.

The high number of deaths reported by the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza — 55 as of 9:30 p.m. Monday — is expected to draw international condemnation, but Manelis insisted that the IDF acted as necessary and in line with its rules of engagement.

Asked about reports from the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry that a 12-year-old and 14-year-old were killed by Israeli gunfire, he said he was unfamiliar with the cases.

“But if a 12-year-old or 14-year-old were killed, I have to ask, what are they doing there? We dropped two rounds of leaflets and put out statements to the media [telling Gazans to stay away],” he said.

He placed blame for the deaths on Hamas, which he said has been using the protests as cover for its terrorist activities and treating the people of Gaza as “human shields.”

Palestinian protesters gathering along the border fence with Israel, May 14, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Throughout the past seven weeks of Gaza protests, the army spokesperson has accused the international media of adopting Hamas’s narrative that the riots along the border are part of a popular uprising and not, as the army maintains, a Hamas operation that is meant to turn the border area into a combat zone under the cover of civilian protests.

“Hamas is playing with fire and they will take responsibility for what happens today,” he said.

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