Greenblatt: Gazans have right to protest, but at ‘safe distance’ from fence
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Envoy praises pro-peace remarks by PLO's ambassador in DC

Greenblatt: Gazans have right to protest, but at ‘safe distance’ from fence

Organizers urged ‘not to stoke more violence’ as they move sit-in tents closer to border with Israel ahead of Friday demonstrations

Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli troops at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli troops at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt on Thursday said that Gazans “have the right to protest their dire humanitarian circumstances,” but warned them to keep a “safe distance” from the Israeli border, as organizers of mass Palestinian demonstrations moved sit-in tents closer to the border fence, raising fears of further violence Friday.

In a series of tweets, Greenblatt said the organizers of the Friday border protests should be focusing on the grim conditions in Gaza and “not stoke the potential for more violence with firebombs & flaming kites and must keep a safe distance from the border.”

Tensions have been high over recent weeks with tens of thousands of Palestinians clashing with Israeli troops on the border for three consecutive Fridays.

He said the cost of the demonstrations was “too high in loss of life and injuries” — although he did not specify who was to blame for this — and said this was why Trump is “willing to invest so much to forge peace.”

Greenblatt also said such an agreement would require “reuniting Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under one responsible PA leadership,” and issued praise for pro-peace remarks made this week by the PLO’s envoy to Washington, Husam Zomlot.

“It is time to do the difficult work of negotiating a solution and work for peace. That difficult work includes reuniting Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under one responsible PA leadership,” he wrote, adding that the effort would require “brave deeds, commitment & compromise from all.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been boycotting the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and announced it will open the US embassy there next month.

Last Friday, at least 10,000 Gazans took part in large-scale demonstrations, with the IDF saying protesters hurled an explosive device and firebombs at Israeli troops deployed at the border, as well as making “several attempts” to damage the fence between Israel and Gaza and cross over into Israeli territory. The previous Friday, about 20,000 Palestinians took part in the demonstrations, with the previous week attracting an estimated 30,000.

US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2017. (FLASH90)

More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes over the part three weeks, according to Hamas-run health authorities. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.

The army said protesters have burned tires and thrown bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and made attempts to breach the border fence. Soldiers have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire.

The National Forum for the March of Return, one of several Palestinian groups behind the weekly demonstrations, said they were “affirming our right to return.” This was a reference to the Palestinian demand that Israel allow tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants to “return” to homes and lands inside Israel which they left or were forced from during Israel’s 1948 Independence War — a demand that would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Gaza protest organizers moved sit-in tents closer to the Israeli border fence, raising fears for more deadly clashes during Friday’s protest.

The protests, encouraged by Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip, began March 30. Organizers said they would gradually move the camps toward the fence until May 15, but made conflicting comments about a possible breach.

While some organizers portray the protests as peaceful, Hamas leaders say their goal is to erase the border and liberate Palestine.

Black smoke rises from tires burned by Gaza protesters at the border with Israel, with Israeli soldiers seen in the foreground, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We will cross the border,” said Daoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee from the smaller Islamic Jihad group, adding that Israel “should feel really jittery as a result of these marches.”

Israel has warned it will not tolerate a mass border breach or permit protesters to get close to the fence. The IDF said Thursday that it is ready for all scenarios and is “prepared to prevent any breach of Israeli sovereignty or damage to the border fence.”

In a camp east of Gaza City, five tents were moved to within 300 meters of the border, just in range of tear gas volleys. Bulldozers also raised protective sand berms around the new tents. In another protest site in southeastern Gaza, earth mounds were created to define the camp’s new boundary.

Activists were testing new means of confronting Israel — kites with burning rags dangling from their tails. The aim is to set ablaze drying wheat fields on the Israeli side.

Several fires have been started in wheat fields on the Israeli side of the border by such contraptions in recent days. The Facebook page of the Gaza protest organizers published images Wednesday of Israeli fields behind the fence, taken from a small camera attached to a kite.

The developments on Thursday came as Israel was celebrating 70 years since the modern Jewish state was established.

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party 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.

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.

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