Israel deploys snipers, tanks as Palestinians begin protests along Gaza border

Hamas-backed ‘March of Return’ demonstrators burn tires in hope smoke will block snipers’ view; IDF fires tear gas, fears border attacks; US calls on Palestinians to stay 500m back

A picture taken on April 6, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border from the Gaza strip shows Palestinian men protesting, burning tires. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)
A picture taken on April 6, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border from the Gaza strip shows Palestinian men protesting, burning tires. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Israel and Hamas geared up Friday for another showdown on the Gaza-Israel border with the IDF deploying snipers and tanks ahead of an expected mass protest, and demonstrators starting to set fire to tires along the tense frontier.

Palestinians were burning tires, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air, and others threw stones at Israeli soldiers over the border fence, who responded with tear gas and live fire, witnesses said.

One person appeared to have been shot east of Gaza City, an AFP photographer on the scene said, but his condition was not immediately clear.

Palestinian activists hope that the smoke will block the view of snipers; Israel fears terrorists will use the smoke as cover to fire on Israeli troops and try to breach the border fence.

The fresh protests come amid concerns about renewed bloodshed after more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured by Israeli fire in a mass protest last week.

Thousands of Palestinians were streaming to tent camps along the border. Hundreds arrived before Muslim noon prayers on Friday at one of the tent camps near the border community of Khuzaa.

Israeli forces fired tear gas that landed inside the encampment, causing people to run and push each other away to the other side of the camp. The canisters landed where TV live vans were positioned.

A sand berm has been erected in recent days between the fence and the camp for extra protection. A dozen ambulances are parked nearby.


The IDF said that since morning “there were violent protests at five sites along the Gaza border in which hundreds of Palestinians were taking part.”

“Our forces will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure and the fence that protects Israeli citizens,” it said, noting that it had declared the area a closed military zone.

Friday’s march is the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.

Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and said it will prevent a breach of the fence at all costs.

Palestinian masked protesters chants slogans in front of the Gaza’s border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Thursday, April 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Israel’s defense minister has warned that protesters approaching the border fence endanger their lives, drawing condemnation from rights groups that said such seemingly broad open-fire rules are unlawful.

A leading Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, issued a rare appeal to Israeli soldiers to refuse any “grossly illegal” orders to fire at unarmed protesters.

Last Friday, over 30,000 Gaza residents participated in mass demonstrations, many gathering in five tent encampments that had been set up from north to south along the narrow coastal strip’s border with Israel, each at a distance of about several hundred meters from the fence. Smaller groups, mostly young men, rushed forward, throwing stones, hurling firebombs or burning tires and drawing Israeli fire. Two were killed after opening fire on Israeli troops, Israel said, while others tried to breach or bomb the border fence.

In all, 22 Palestinians were killed in Gaza over the past week, most of them last Friday, according to Gaza health officials. This includes a 30-year-old who died on Friday of injuries sustained last week, the officials said. Israel has no official death toll figures.

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence. He said the army had faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence, and that Israeli soldiers had used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence.

Palestinian protesters use slingshots to throw stones towards Israeli forces during clashes following a protest along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City on April 5, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

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.

Ahead of Friday’s march, Hamas announced it would pay compensation to families of those killed or injured, ranging from $200 to $500 per injury and $3,000 per death.

Late Thursday, activists urged residents over loudspeakers mounted on vans trawling the streets to show up for what they called the “Friday of Tires.”

A Palestinian youth collects tires that will be burned during protests along the Gaza border in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 4, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, with the backing of smaller terror groups.

The White House on Thursday called on Palestinians to engage in solely peaceful protests and stay at least 500 meters from Gaza’s border with Israel, on the eve of fresh demonstrations supported by Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers along the border.

While the UN issued a warning to Israel to use “extreme caution” in facing the mass protests, US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt put the onus squarely on Palestinians.

Greenblatt said protesters “should remain outside the 500-meter buffer zone; and should not approach the border fence in any way or any location.”

He added, in a statement: “We condemn leaders and protestors who call for violence or who send protestors — including children — to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed. Instead, we call for a renewed focus by all parties on finding solutions to the dire humanitarian challenges facing Gazans.”

Earlier on Thursday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged Israel to exercise “extreme caution,” and to allow Palestinians to protest peacefully along the border.

Hamas leaders have declared in recent days that they plan “surprises” and that the ultimate goal of the marches is to remove the border and liberate Palestine.

Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said on Thursday that the Palestinians will continue their “struggle until they achieve their freedom and restore all their lands.” He said that the Palestinians’ “right to all of the soil of Palestine was absolute and clear.”

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 has generally been 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.

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdraw its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.

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