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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Israel promises tough response to further Gaza protests

Avigdor Lieberman’s comments raised the possibility of more bloodshed this Friday, when another protest is expected

Palestinian protesters run for cover from Israeli during clashes with Israeli troops along the border between Israel and Gaza Strip. EPA/MOHAMMED SABER
Palestinian protesters run for cover from Israeli during clashes with Israeli troops along the border between Israel and Gaza Strip. EPA/MOHAMMED SABER

Israel’s defence minister said on Tuesday that the military will not change its tough response to Hamas-led mass protests near Gaza’s border with Israel, warning that those who approach the border are putting their lives at risk.

Avigdor Lieberman spoke near Gaza, where 18 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire on Friday, the first day of what Hamas says will be six weeks of intermittent border protests against a stifling blockade of the territory.

On Tuesday, a 25-year-old Gaza man was killed by Israeli fire as he threw stones in the area of the border fence, Gaza’s health ministry said.

Mr Lieberman’s comments raised the possibility of more bloodshed this Friday, when another mass protest is expected.

The Palestinians’ ambassador at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, appealed to the Security Council for immediate international protection for Palestinian civilians, especially in Gaza. He charged in a letter to the council that Israel has adopted “a shoot-to-kill policy” during what he called peaceful protests.

Mr Mansour strongly backed Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for an independent investigation of the killings and accused Israel of “intentionally, grossly and systematically” violating its legal obligation to protect civilians.

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The international group Human Rights Watch accused Mr Lieberman and other senior Israeli officials of unlawfully calling for the use of live fire against Palestinian protesters who posed no imminent threat to life.

Last Friday, thousands of Palestinians marched near the border fence between Israel and Gaza, many gathering around tent encampments set up several hundred metres from the frontier. Smaller groups moved closer to the fence, throwing stones, hurling firebombs or burning tyres. Israeli troops were lined up on the other side of the fence, including snipers perched on high earth embankments overlooking Gaza.

Palestinian health officials have said 18 Palestinians were killed that day, including 13 involved in the mass protest, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 war between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

More than 750 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire, according to Gaza health officials. Mr Mansour told the Security Council the number of wounded was more than 1,500, including in excess of 750 by live ammunition and 148 by rubber-coated steel bullets.

The Israeli military has claimed, without elaborating, that it believes the figure was overblown and that dozens, at most, were wounded by live rounds.

Israeli officials have said soldiers in the border area had orders to target the “main instigators” and those who approach the border.

In Tuesday’s violence, the military said dozens of Palestinians had participated in “riots” at four locations along the border, and troops had fired towards suspects who damaged the border fence. It issued a short video showing five youths approaching the fence. One of them pounds the fence with a club, while two others briefly cross through before jumping back to the other side.

Human Rights Watch said Israel has presented no evidence that rock-throwing or other violence seriously threatened the soldiers on the other side of the fence.

“The high number of deaths and injuries was the foreseeable consequence of granting soldiers leeway to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations in violation of international norms, coupled with the longstanding culture of impunity within the Israeli army for serious abuses,” the group said.

Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas official, said mass protests would continue as planned, despite Mr Lieberman’s threats.

He said the Israeli defence minister’s latest comments should be seen as “more evidence of a war crime [Mr Lieberman] committed in Gaza last Friday.”

Mr Lieberman has rejected international calls for an independent investigation.