IDF defends killing 16 protesters
Israeli military chief threatens to step up military response as UN calls for investigation of latest Gaza violence, writes Raf Sanchez
Israel will target "terror organisations" in Gaza if violence along the territory's border with Israel drags on, the chief military spokesman warned yesterday, a day after around 30,000 Palestinians staged protests near the border fence.
The mass marches were led by Gaza's ruling Hamas group and touted as the launch of a six-week-long protest campaign. Palestinian health officials said 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and more than 750 hit by live rounds, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas.
In the opening confrontations last Friday, large crowds gathered near the border fence, with smaller groups of protesters rushing forward, throwing stones and burning tyres.
Israeli troops responded with live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets, while drones dropped tear gas from above. The army released videos showing soldiers with rifles perched on embankments overlooking the scene.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) defended its handling of the clashes, while Palestinian mourners called for "revenge" as they buried their dead.
Footage emerged yesterday appearing to show unarmed protesters being shot by Israeli snipers. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, called for an investigation into the killings.
"The use of snipers was against specific people who were specific perpetrators of violence," said Lt Col Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman.
However, widely shared videos on social media appeared to show at least two unarmed men hit by Israel gunfire. One clip showed a young man running away from Israeli positions holding a car tyre. In the clip he appears to be shot in the back and crumples to the ground.
Palestinian media reported that the man, an 18-year-old, later died from his injuries.
Lt Col Lerner said he could not comment on the specifics of the incident. "The fact that you have a video of 30 seconds showing this guy running away and being shot means you don't see the context or what he was doing beforehand."
A second clip appears to show an unidentified man, with no visible weapons, walking slowly towards the Israeli position when he was shot. It is not known if he was killed.
The IDF tweeted early on Saturday its response was "accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed". When asked by reporters, a spokesman could not say how many live rounds the IDF fired on Friday or how many people were shot. The military later deleted the tweet.
The IDF claimed that those killed were men between the ages of 18 and 30 who were involved in violence and belonged to militant factions. The IDF alleged Gaza health officials exaggerated the number of the wounded, and that several dozen at most were injured by live fire.
Gaza City's Al-Shifa Hospital received 284 injured people last Friday, the majority with bullet injuries, said a spokesman. He said 70 were under the age of 18 and 11 were women. He added that 40 surgeries were performed last Friday and 50 were planned yesterday.
"These are all from live bullets that broke limbs or caused deep, open wounds with damage to nerves and veins," he said.
Among those recovering from surgery was 16-year-old Marwan Yassin who had thrown stones with a slingshot at the fence and was shot in both legs. One of his legs was wrapped in bandages and the other had a cast and metal fixtures. His mother said, at his bedside, that she would ban him from future protests.
Protest organisers have said mass marches would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel's creation. Palestinians mark that date as the 'Nakba', or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted during the 1948 war over Israel's creation.
The vast majority of Gaza's two million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from homes in what is now Israel.
The border protests were seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the militant group seized Gaza from forces loyal to its rival, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007. The continued closure has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern.