Liberman says IDF will not change open-fire policy on Gaza border

Defense minister rejects criticism over military response to protests, calls for Hamas to give up armed struggle in exchange for reconstruction of the Strip

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to local leaders of Israeli communities near the Gaza Stirp on April 3, 2018. (Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to local leaders of Israeli communities near the Gaza Stirp on April 3, 2018. (Defense Ministry)

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

“We have set clear rules of the game and we do not intend to change them. Anyone who approaches the fence endangers his life, and I would recommend that Gaza residents put their efforts not into protesting against Israel, but into regime change within the Strip,” Liberman said during a tour of Israeli communities just outside the coastal enclave.

“I think the [Israel Defense Forces] operated exceptionally well, as expected, and I have no doubt that we will continue to act in the same way in the days to come,” he added.

Violent protests have been staged every day since Friday’s mass demonstration, though on a far smaller level, usually involving a few dozen people. Nevertheless, the army has remained on high alert in the area out of concerns that terror groups could capitalize on the tensions and carry out attacks.

Israeli soldiers take aim as they lie on an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on March 30, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The defense minister also praised the residents of the communities around Gaza — an area generally referred to in Hebrew as the “Gaza envelope” — for maintaining their daily routine on Friday.

“This was a great achievement, this unity, for the army, for the residents,” he said.

On 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.

Speaking to local leaders and the heads of security for the communities, the defense minister defended the army’s actions, which led to 16 Palestinian deaths and over 1,000 injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

Fatalities from the March 30 violence on the Israel-Gaza border identified by Israel as members of terror groups. (Israel Defense Forces)

“It needs to be understood that the majority of the people killed were terrorists whom we know well, operatives in the military arm of Hamas, as well as in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. These weren’t innocent civilians who came as part of a civil protest,” Liberman said.

The IDF on Saturday named and detailed 10 of the dead as members of terror groups including Hamas. (Hamas, an Islamist terror group that avowedly seeks to destroy Israel, had earlier acknowledged five of them were its members.) Islamic Jihad later claimed an 11th.

“This was a provocation well organized by the military wing of Hamas in an attempt to violate our sovereignty, to disrupt our daily life and to pester the nation of Israel’s celebrations of the first day of Passover,” Liberman said. “We did what we had to do.”

The defense minister put the blame for Friday’s violence solely on Hamas.

“We didn’t initiate any provocations against the residents of Gaza; we protect our residents,” he said.

Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas official, said mass protests would continue as planned, despite Liberman’s statements.

He said the defense minister’s latest comments should be seen as “more evidence of a war crime he committed in Gaza last Friday.”

Asked what the IDF was anticipating for this upcoming Friday, when Hamas has called for renewed clashes on the border, the defense minister said he “didn’t want to make an assessment. We are prepared for every scenario.”

Liberman was joined in his tour by the head of IDF Operations, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon; the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir; and the head of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Yehuda Fox.

The defense minister called on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to give up ambitions for armed struggle against Israel and said that in return Israel would assist in the reconstruction of the beleaguered coastal enclave.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh flashes the victory gesture during a demonstration near the border with Israel east of Gaza City to commemorate Land Day on March 30, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

“We are not looking for war, no one wants a war,” he said.

“I hope the other side understands that it’s preferable to focus on tourism, the economy, and agriculture, and not on tunneling, rockets, and hating Israel,” Liberman said.

Both the IDF and international aid organizations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Strip gets a few hours of electricity per day, which prevents it from treating its sewage, has limited access to fresh water and suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

“As soon as the leadership in the Gaza Strip and Gaza residents give up on the idea of destroying the State of Israel, the moment the leadership focuses on the economy, they will not find a better, more efficient partner than the State of Israel,” Liberman said.

“No one talks about coexistence, no one talks about making peace. They all talk about destroying and hating Israel, and about returning refugees to Safed, to Haifa, to Jaffa,” he said. “Reconstruction in exchange for disarmament — that’s the formula, it’s on the table.”

AP contributed to this report.

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