The UN envoy for the Middle East expressed concern Thursday over the “preparations and rhetoric” for the second Palestinian March of Return to be held along the Gaza border Friday, a week after protests morphed into deadly violence.
“Israeli forces should exercise maximum restraint and Palestinians should avoid friction at the Gaza fence,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement, as both sides girded for what is expected to be a repeat of last weekend’s protests.
Last 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.
At least 16 Palestinians were killed and over 1,400 injured by live fire, rubber bullets, and tear gas from the Israeli forces directed at Palestinian rioters, including some who attempted to breach the border fence, according to varying accounts from both sides. Israel claimed terror groups used the demonstrations as a cover to carry out terror activity, and many of those killed were members of the group’s armed wing.
Mladenov called for demonstrations and protests to be “allowed to proceed in a peaceful manner.”
“Civilians, particularly children, must not be intentionally put in danger or targeted in any way,” he added.
Israel often claims that Hamas uses civilians as human shields, hiding among crowds as it launches weapons at Israel, while Palestinians have accused Israel of targeting children.
In the lead up to Friday’s demonstration, Gazans were assembling thousands of tires to burn and roll at the coastal enclave’s border with the Jewish state.
Organizers are calling the march’s second recurrence “the day of the tire,” and the hashtag has been trending on social media.
At the same time, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that Israel will not be changing its policies toward Palestinians rioting along the Gaza security fence and has 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.
On Thursday, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry announced the death of an additional Palestinian protester who was hit by Israeli fire during border clashes last Friday.
His death brings the toll from Friday’s clashes to 20, according to the ministry’s figures.
However, there have been discrepancies in Palestinian reports on the Gaza death toll from Friday. While Hamas claimed Monday that 18 had died, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority had the number at 16. Israel has no official death toll figures. Over 1,000 were reported injured.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence. Manelis said on Friday evening that the army had 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.
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.
Mladenov’s Thursday statement was nearly identical to one he made prior to the first March of Return, which coincided with Land Day last Friday.
Protest organizers plan for the demonstrations to continue for six weeks, leading up to mid May, when Palestinians mark the “catastrophe” of their displacement with the creation of Israel, and which is also expected to coincide with the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
After last Friday’s protests, Hamas leaders boasted that the next one would not necessarily stop at the border and that the terror group could have more “surprises” in store for Israel.