Liberman threatens ‘much harsher’ response to further Gaza unrest

Defense minister claims 90% of 40,000 Palestinian protesters on Friday were paid Hamas activists and their families

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Sunday that Israel would act with a far stronger hand if Palestinians in the Gaza Strip resumed Friday’s violent protests on the border with Israel, during which 15 Palestinians were killed.

He claimed that of some 40,000 Palestinian protesters, 90 percent were officials and activists paid by the Hamas terror group, which rules the enclave, together with their families.

Liberman also pledged that there would be no international inquiry into the clashes, despite demands to that effect by parts of the international community. And he lashed out at the new head of the left-wing Meretz Party for joining calls for a probe, charging that her party represented Palestinian, rather than Israeli, interests.

During Friday’s so-called March of Return, rioters threw rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops on the other side of the fence, burned tires and scrap wood, sought to breach and damage the security fence, and in one case, opened fire at Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians take part in demonstrations near the border with Israel east of Jabalya in the northern Gaza strip on March 30, 2018. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

The Israel Defense Forces said that at least 10 of the 15 dead were members of terror groups, while Hamas has acknowledged that five of them were gunmen from its military wing.

On Saturday, the United States blocked a draft UN Security Council statement calling for an investigation of the incidents, according to diplomats.

Representing Arab countries on the council, Kuwait had called for an “independent and transparent investigation” of the violence.

The defense minister, who heads the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party,  praised the army for having “carried out its work in the best possible way.” Summing up what he called Hamas’s “March of Terror,” he said, “We can say that the [Passover] festival passed quietly — no soldiers were hurt.”

Palestinian protesters evacuate a wounded youth during clashes with Israeli troops along the Gaza Strip border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Threatening that the army “can respond much more harshly next time” and that it would not “hesitate to use everything we have,” he also expressed doubt that the Palestinians would seek to replicate Friday’s events, “in light of the results.”

Liberman claimed that the Gaza march had cost its organizers $15 million. “Do you know how much medicine you could buy with a sum like this? The fact that [Hamas] budgets such a sum for blatant terror activities says it all.”

Upping earlier Israeli analyses of the makeup of the protesters, Liberman charged that 90% of the more than 40,000 people who came to the border fence were “Hamas officials or activists who are paid salaries by Hamas, together with their families. The simple people didn’t come.”

He claimed that those that did come were armed and disguised as non-violent protesters.

“What is the attempt to break through the fence? It’s to harm our sovereignty,” he said. “Any state whose borders people tried to crash would act in an even more severe way than we did, and therefore the procession of hypocrites calling for a committee of inquiry must understand that there will be no such thing. There will not be any international inquiry. We will not cooperate with any inquiry of this kind.”

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg speaks to supporters after being elected as the new party head, March 22, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

On Saturday, Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg called on Israeli authorities to open an investigation into the violence, indicating she thought the Israeli military appeared to have been too “trigger happy.”

The death toll and the footage from the events broadcast on social media and elsewhere, including a video aired on Palestinian media apparently showing an 18-year-old being shot dead while running away from the border fence, “warrant an independent investigation by Israel, including a probe into the rules of engagement and the military and political readiness for the events,” Zandberg said.

Liberman hit back, saying that for some time, Meretz had not been representing Israeli but rather Palestinian interests in the Knesset.

He said Israel had tried diplomatic avenues to peace on two occasions — the Oslo Peace Accords during the 1990s and the unilateral Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip under the late prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 — but that Hamas had responded by investing millions in the production of missiles and tunnels.

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

Friday’s clashes marked the bloodiest day since the 2014 Gaza war, kicking off what Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers envision as a campaign of mass sit-ins along the border meant to spotlight the demand of uprooted Palestinians and their descendants to “return” to what is now Israel.

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.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, seeks to destroy Israel.

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