Wednesday 16 January 2019

Israelis offer to trade dead bodies after Gaza death toll rises to 18

Palestinian protester reacts during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo: Reuters
Palestinian protester reacts during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo: Reuters

Raf Sanchez and Fares Akram in Jerusalem and Gaza

The Israeli military has said it will not return the bodies of two Palestinian gunmen killed in Friday's border clashes until Hamas frees two Israeli citizens being held in Gaza as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war.

General Yoav Mordechai said that Israel was holding the corpses of two Hamas fighters killed on Friday as well as the bodies of 24 other Palestinians.

"Israel will not be silent, and the residents of Gaza will not know peace until the Israelis are returned and our soldiers are brought to burial in Israel," he said. "There is a shared value for Judaism and Islam of burying the dead."

The death toll from the violence on Friday rose to 18 after Faris al-Raqib (29), a fighter from Palestinian Islamic Jihad succumbed to gunshot wounds.

The Islamist group has been holding the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul since 2014

Two mentally ill Israeli civilians - Abera Mengistu, an Ethiopian-Israeli, and Hisham al-Sayed, a Bedouin-Israeli - are also believed to be held after they had crossed over into Gaza.

Human rights groups have condemned both sides for holding corpses.

Israel and the Palestinians are bracing themselves for fresh confrontations in Gaza this Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Arab world.

"The Palestinian people are determined to continue the Great March of Return, to free the land and move towards occupied Jerusalem, and they are not concerned by all the sacrifices," said Khalil al-Hayya, a Hamas leader.

Israel rejected allegations of unlawful use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators. More than 750 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire in Friday's protest, according to Gaza health officials, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have not said if the final aim of protests, which are to continue off and on for six weeks, is an attempted mass breach of the border fence. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh hinted on Sunday at an escalation, saying last Friday's protests had a "limit", but that "next time, we won't know where that line would be".

Israel accused Hamas of trying to attack its border under the guise of protests.

Officials said Israel has a right to defend its border and that its troops were instructed to target what the army described as the "main instigators".

However, the military's open-fire policies came under more scrutiny as two amateur videos emerged purportedly showing two Palestinians being shot - one killed and one wounded - while not posing any apparent threat to soldiers.

The Israeli military accused Hamas on Sunday of releasing videos that were incomplete, edited or "completely fabricated" but did not elaborate.

The military said troops followed strict rules of engagement and that protesters were putting themselves in "harm's way" by operating in a dangerous area.

Meanwhile, Israel has backed down from a controversial plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers after striking a deal with the UN to have many of them resettled in Western countries, including possibly Canada, Germany and Italy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said that under the deal, 16,250 asylum seekers will be sent to "developed countries" while roughly 20,000 others will be allowed to remain in Israel. Most of the asylum seekers are from Eritrea.

The deal with the UN allows Mr Netanyahu to scrap the Israeli government's original plan to give asylum seekers a choice: stay in Israel and face indefinite imprisonment or accept $3,500 (€2,850) from the Israeli authorities and agree to go to a "third country", such as Rwanda or Uganda.

However, there was confusion last night as both German and Italian authorities said they were not aware of the plan.

(© Daily Telegraph London)

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