'Hamas sent terrorists dressed as civilians to challenge us'

Liberman on journalist’s death: Fly drone above soldiers, you endanger your life

Defense minister says Israel’s preparation thwarted Gaza’s ‘terrorist march’; Netanyahu: Palestinians speak of human rights, but want to crush us

Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the IDF's West Bank Division, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, on January 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the IDF's West Bank Division, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, on January 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Saturday praised the actions of security forces during violent protests in the Gaza Strip on Friday, which Liberman called “a terrorist march.” The defense minister also indicated a Palestinian photo-journalist who was killed during Friday’s clashes had placed his life in danger by operating a drone above Israeli soldiers.

Netanyahu said Palestinians “speak of human rights, but they really want to crush the Jewish state. We won’t let them.”

Liberman said the Passover holiday “was one of the quietest and safest we have known in recent years. Our preparation on the Gaza border proved itself.”

He said Israelis were indebted to “thousands” in the military, police, and Shin Bet security agency “who worked very hard and thwarted any attempt to challenge us.”

Some 20,000 Gazans participated in Friday’s second successive Hamas-backed “March of Return” at the Gaza border. The army said protesters burned tires and threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers. Several attempts were made to breach the border fence. Soldiers responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire. Palestinians said nine Gazans were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the clashes.

The demonstrations largely abated by Saturday, but three Palestinians were wounded by Israeli forces in a small clash east of Gaza City in the afternoon, one of them seriously, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Netanyahu said he saluted “the soldiers of the IDF who keep us safe…from those who pretend to speak of human rights, while holding a Nazi flag. Here is the naked truth. They speak of human rights, but they really want to crush the Jewish state. We won’t let them. We’ll stand strong. We’ll keep our country safe.”

Pictures from Gaza on Friday showed Nazi imagery among some protesters’ Palestinian flags.

Palestinian flags and a swastika are seen amid the black smoke of Gaza demonstrations, April 6, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson Unit)

Liberman characterized the protest as “a terrorist march.” He said that Hamas had “sent terrorists disguised as civilians to challenge our sovereignty and the world portrays it as a civil protest.”

He lambasted the world’s “hypocrisy,” noting that dozens of civilians had been killed in the latest regime airstrikes in Syria, “but the UN secretary general did not call for an investigative committee, the UN Security Council did not convene, the Arab League ignored it, and the BBC didn’t see or hear any of it.”

Palestinian men run for cover from tears gas canisters at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The BBC did report on the latest deadly airstrikes.

On the subject of Palestinian photographer Yasser Murtaja, who was killed while covering the protests, Liberman said “I don’t know who is or isn’t a photographer. Anyone who operates drones above IDF soldiers needs to understand he’s putting himself in danger.”

Palestinian journalists carry a portrait of journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Murtaja was known to use camera drones to capture photographs, and Israel Radio, citing unnamed sources in Gaza, reported that he was doing so when he was shot Friday. Several Palestinian journalists denied the claim to Reuters.

Liberman added: “We’ve seen dozens of cases where Hamas terrorists used ambulances, dressed up as Red Crescent personnel and disguised themselves as journalists. We won’t take an chances.”

Avi Gabbay, head of the opposition’s Zionist Union, was also supportive of the army’s conduct, saying “The IDF showed determination, sound judgement and created deterrence in the face of Hamas’s provocations.”

Head of the Zionist Union Avi Gabbay in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Gabbay said it was now up to Israel’s political leadership to “prevent the next round of fighting.”

The US on Friday blocked a UN Security Council statement supporting the right of Palestinians to “demonstrate peacefully” and endorsing Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for an independent investigation into deadly protests in Gaza.

The European Union on Saturday said the deaths of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border “raise serious questions about proportionate use of force” by Israel.

The Arab League’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said Arab ministers would discuss options to pursue the Palestinian issue at a meeting in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on April 12 ahead of a summit of Arab leaders in the country on April 15.

After Friday’s protest the Israeli army said it had managed to frustrate Hamas’s “manipulative” efforts to breach the Gaza border fence and carry out acts of terrorism under the cover of a public protest.

Israeli forces are deployed near Kibbutz Nir Oz at the Gaza-Israel border amid smoke from tires burned by Palestinians near Khan Yunis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

The IDF released video footage of Gazans attempting to breach or target the fence under cover of huge plumes of black smoke caused by the burning of tires close to the border, and Israeli television showed footage of what appeared to be teenage Gazans rolling tires close to the border fence.

“What we’re seeing is violent disturbances under cover of which Hamas is trying to carry out acts of terrorism,” said Maj-Gen. Eyal Zamir, the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, terming the tactic “manipulation by Hamas.”

“Hamas sent children out ahead [toward the fence], cynically using them,” the IDF’s spokesman, Ronen Manelis, said on Friday night. Manelis specified that eight explosive devices and numerous petrol bombs were thrown, and that the IDF faced several attempts “to cut through the fence.”

“There were attempts to carry out acts of terrorism … using the smoke [from burning tires] for cover,” he said, but the IDF had ensured the fence was not breached.

“The army did its job,” said Manelis. “The fence was not breached and [Israel’s] sovereignty was not harmed.”

Israeli military officials indicated that the IDF’s warnings to Gazans to stay back from the fence, and its firm defense of the border at last week’s protests, had a deterrent effect. Far fewer demonstrators came near the fence, they said.

Hadashot TV news said imams at prayer sessions near the border during the day told Gazans to stay at least 300 meters from the border. Hamas leaders, who did circulate among the demonstrators, did not approach as close to the fence as they did a week ago, it also reported.

IDF officials said Hamas was seeking “a victory picture” of its members breaching the fence, and/or crossing into Israel, and that the IDF had thus far prevented this. They said Hamas now faced the challenge of maintaining momentum for the planned ongoing protests, and that it had been disingenuously assuring Gazans in recent days that the protests would be peaceful so that they would continue to come to the demonstrations.

The Palestinian Authority, in a statement published in Ramallah Friday evening, called on its envoys to the UN, the Arab League and the EU to immediately work with all international parties to “stop this deliberate brutality and killing of innocent and defenseless people.”

A Palestinian protestor waves his national flag during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza-Israel border, east of Gaza City on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The PA also renewed its call to provide “international protection” for the Palestinians.

Friday’s demonstration was 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.

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew 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.

Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.

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