The Israeli military said Saturday that if violence drags on along the Gaza border, Israel will expand its reaction to strike the terrorists behind it.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said the military has thus far restricted its response to those trying to breach its border, but if attacks continue it will go after terrorists “in other places, too.”
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 Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 16 Palestinians were killed and over 1,400 injured by Israel during the mass protests. It said more than 750 people were hurt by live rounds.
Manelis said all those killed were engaged in violence. He said 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.
A spokesman for Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital said it received 284 injured people Friday, the majority with bullet injuries. Ayman Sahbani said 70 were under the age of 18 and 11 were women.
He said 40 surgeries were performed Friday and that 50 were planned Saturday. “These are all from live bullets that broke limbs or caused deep, open wounds with damage to nerves and veins,” he said.
Around 200 demonstrators protested near the Gaza border on Saturday noon, according to Palestinian media.
The local Shehab news agency reported protests east of Jabaliya and Khan Younis. It said the Israeli military fired at some of the demonstrators, and that two were injured.
Shehab also claimed that the bodies of two demonstrators killed on Friday were in Israeli hands.
Friday’s clashes were the deadliest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 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. The military said protesters threw firebombs and rocks at soldiers, rolled burning tires at them and in one incident opened fire.
On Friday evening, Gaza’s Hamas leaders called on protesters to retreat from the border area until Saturday.
Protest organizers have said mass marches would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation. Palestinians mark that date as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted during the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. The vast majority of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from homes in what is now Israel.
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.
Hamas is an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel. It seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah in 2007.
The violence appeared to die down after sundown, but the army said it was remaining on high alert amid fears of persisting attacks, including infiltration attempts and rocket fire. Tanks and jets bombed Hamas sites in the early evening, after two Gazans opened fire on troops, the IDF said.
Hadashot news reported Saturday morning that three rockets were launched from the Strip towards Israel overnight following the demonstrations, but that all three fell inside Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority declared Saturday a day of mourning for those killed.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was “fully responsible” for the violence. In a speech broadcast on Palestine TV, Abbas said he has asked the United Nations to immediately work toward providing protection for the “defenseless” Palestinians. “The large number of martyrs and injured in peaceful demonstrations affirms the need for the international community to intervene to provide protection for our people,” Abbas said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called Friday for “an independent and transparent investigation” into the deadly clashes, as Security Council members urged restraint and a lowering of tensions on both sides.
Jordan on Saturday condemned “the Israeli escalation” in Gaza and blamed Israel for the violence. Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Al Momani called on the international community to pressure Israel to take responsibility for Gaza’s humanitarian situation.
“The lack of prospects for a thorough and just solution to the Palestinian issue, one that guarantees the right to freedom and dignity and a state for the Palestinian people, will only breed despair and bring violence and bloodshed — serving the region’s extreme ideologies,” he said.
During the Security Council meeting, which was called by Kuwait, US diplomat Walter Miller urged both sides to calm tensions, and said “bad actors” were endangering the lives of innocent protesters.
Miller said it was unfortunate that Israel could not take part in Friday’s meeting due to the Passover holiday. “It’s vital that this council be balanced in its approach,” he said. “We should have found an arrangement for all parties to participate tonight.”
Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon said of the meeting: “While Jews around the world gathered with their family at the seder table to celebrate the Passover holiday, the Palestinians sunk to a new deceitful low so that they could use the UN to spread lies about Israel.
“This shameful exploitation of our holiday will not succeed in stopping us from speaking the truth about the Hamas terror gatherings that aim to destabilize the region,” he concluded.
Manelis said 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.
Israel was condemned by the Muslim world over the violence, with many accusing it of using “disproportionate force” against Palestinian rioters.
Ahead of the meeting, Danon told the Security Council that Hamas was intentionally endangering the lives of innocent civilians, and urged member states not to be “deceived” by the terrorist group.
“Today we saw yet another example of Hamas exploiting civilians as they sent children to the fence with Israel intentionally endangering their lives. The international community must not be deceived by Hamas’s attempts to conceal their crimes,” he said in statement.
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.