Sunday 26 January 2020

Israel rejects criticism after 15 protesters killed by troops

Call by UN for probe as 700 Palestinians hurt in violence

Palestinina protesters clash with the Israeli army during a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty
Palestinina protesters clash with the Israeli army during a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty

Joseph Federman

Israel has rejected international calls for an investigation into deadly violence along Gaza's border with Israel, saying troops acted appropriately and fired only at Palestinian protesters who posed a threat.

Fifteen Palestinians were killed and more than 700 wounded in Friday's violence near the Israeli border, according to Palestinian health officials. It was the area's deadliest violence in four years.

Human rights groups have accused the army of using excessive force, and UN secretary-general António Guterres and European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini have urged an investigation.

But Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not co-operate with a UN inquiry if there were one.

"From the standpoint of the Israeli soldiers, they did what had to be done," Mr Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio. "I think that all of our troops deserve a commendation, and there won't be any inquiry."

Friday's mass marches were largely led by Gaza's ruling Hamas group and touted as the launch of a six-week-long protest campaign against a stifling decade-old blockade of the territory. Israel and Egypt have maintained the blockade since Hamas - an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction - seized control of Gaza in 2007.

A Palestinian demonstrator throws back a teargas canister towards Israeli forces during clashes in Hebron. Photo: AFP
A Palestinian demonstrator throws back a teargas canister towards Israeli forces during clashes in Hebron. Photo: AFP

In Friday's confrontations, large crowds gathered near the fence, with smaller groups of protesters rushing forward, throwing stones and burning tires.

Israeli troops responded with live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets, while drones dropped tear gas from above. Soldiers with rifles were perched on high earth embankments overlooking the scene.

The military has said it responded only to violent attacks aimed at troops and the border fence. But video showed at least a handful of incidents in which people appear to have been shot either far from the border or while they were not actively rioting.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of releasing videos that were incomplete, edited or "completely fabricated". Troops had followed strict rules of engagement and protesters were putting themselves in "harm's way" in a dangerous area.

Mr Lieberman said those who protested peacefully were not harmed, saying claims peaceful protesters were harmed were lie: "Whoever didn't get close to the fence was not shot."

On Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, accused Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, of being "a terrorist" after the Mr Netanyahu rejected Ankara's "moral lessons" over deadly clashes in Gaza.

"Hey, Netanyahu! You are occupier. And it is as an occupier that you are on those lands. At the same time, you are a terrorist," Erdogan said in a televised speech in Adana, southern Turkey.

However, Mr Netanyahu rejected Turkish criticism, likening it to an April Fool's joke.

"The most moral army in the world will not be lectured to on morality from someone who for years has been bombing civilians indiscriminately," he wrote on Twitter. "Apparently this is how they mark April 1 in Ankara."

Tamar Zandberg, leader of the dovish opposition party Meretz, posted a video over the weekend calling for an independent inquiry.

"I'm worried about the fate of all of us, and the fate of the residents of the Gaza periphery communities, who could be sitting in bomb shelters today, tomorrow or next week," she told Army Radio. "I'm calling to stop this now."

The Israeli military claimed the men killed were involved in violence and belonged to Hamas and other militant factions.

The army later released the names and ages of 10 of the dead, including what it said were eight members of Hamas and two from other groups.

Israel has also accused Gaza health officials of exaggerating the number of wounded.

Four of the 15 dead were members of the Hamas military wing, Hamas said.

The group said a fifth member who was not on the Health Ministry list was killed near the border, and Israel has the body. It said another man is missing.

Meanwhile, during his Easter message yesterday Pope Francis also urged reconciliation in Israel, a place "experiencing in these days the wounds of ongoing conflict that do not spare the defenseless."

The protests are to culminate in a large border march on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel's founding.

The date is commemorated by Palestinians as their "nakba," or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 war over Israel's creation.

Israel has warned it will not allow the border to be breached.

It also accuses Hamas of trying to use protests as a cover for planting explosives and staging attacks. On Saturday, Israel's military said it will target militant groups inside Gaza if the border violence drags on.

It appears unlikely that large-scale protests will continue daily, with larger turnouts only expected after Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.

Irish Independent

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