Along the unwalled border that Israel maintains with the Gaza territory, protests erupted into violence on Friday, after a week of tumultuous actions surround the border.
A number of explosive devices were detonated earlier this week in areas between the Gazan border and Israel.
Last Tuesday, three militants armed with knives and grenades also infiltrated border barriers, and were captured near a military base in Southern Israel.
The previous Saturday, another four infiltrated border barriers and carrying bottles of flammable liquids, tried to light fire to military vehicles. When approached by troops, they fled back across the border, and a Hamas outpost was shelled in response.
The protests initially started as an offshoot of “Land Day” protests, a holdover from the 1976 protest deaths of the repartitioning of Arab land in the Galilee. Their current aim is to push for Palestinian rights to settle land that they claim is historically theirs in Israel. Prior to the day of the protest, the Hamas government set up tents housing thousands of people, placed close to the border. They planned to slowly move the tents closer and closer to the border barrier, fomenting a conflict with the Israeli army which has publicly stated that closely approaching, attempting to destroy, or breaching the border will be considered infiltration and will be met with force.
The demonstrations were split up into those protesting in a designated safe zone, set about 500m from the border barrier, and a small group of mostly young men who approached the barrier wall. They started throwing rocks at troops, and according the Israeli army attempted to breach and destroy the barrier. Police were expecting a confrontation, and the army had warned beforehand about the potential for violence erupting. They feared that there would be a mass storming of the border barrier, destroying its protections, and then crossing by armed individuals.
In addition to being armed with anti-riot gear, the revocation of a decades old policy preventing live fire from being used against civilians in Gaza meant that snipers and officers were authorized to use live fire, and aim for the feet and ankles of any trying to destroy and breach the barrier, and use lethal force against those approaching with weapons. The end result of this was sixteen Palestinians killed, and seventy wounded.
Israeli Army, IDF, Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis claimed that there was, “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. The IDF then used, “pinpoint fire” against points of breach, and, “all the fatalities were aged 18-30, several of the fatalities were known to us, and at least two of them were members of Hamas commando forces.”
Hamas has publicly stated that at least five of the dead were from its military corps. Israel puts that total number at eight.
Gaza is deeply impoverished, and protesting is frequent in the Palestinian territories as public services and standard of living stagnate under a government that hasn’t seen elections in more than a decade. Two thirds of residents are registered with the UNWRA as refugees, and unemployment is sky-high with the border crossings with both Egypt and Israel largely closed, in part due to the Hamas government which rules Gaza.
A UN security council resolution demanding an investigation into the deaths was proposed by Kuwait, and vetoed by the United States. Responding to this, the Israeli ambassador to the UN said that Israel will conduct its own internal investigations, and is perfectly capable of introspection. He said that Israel was being treated hypocritically, and if another country faced armed protesters storming their own border wall, the casualty counts would have been in the hundreds, implying that Israel had acted with restraint.
A video has surfaced that appears to show one man being shot while running with a tire, away from the border barrier. It has not been verified, and the IDF has responded saying, “Hamas distributes many different videos, including those that show only parts of events, edited and fabricated… our forces acted according to the rules of engagement in a thoughtful manner, while refraining from harming civilians whom Hamas placed on the front lines in order to embarrass Israel while endangering those civilians.”
Click the image for the video (Warning: Graphic)
The protest is meant to last for six weeks, culminating on May 15th with the anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, marked by the Palestinians as “Nakhba,” meaning catastrophe, for the Palestinians who fled their homes in the 1948 war.
Responses to the clash have been divergent, with a notable scuffle between Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s Tayyip Recip Erdogan. Erdogan had initially condemned the Israeli action, and Netanyahy released a statement, saying, “the most moral army in the world will not be lectured by someone who for years is bombing civilian populations indiscriminately.”
Erdogan responded by saying, “I do not need to tell the world how cruel the Israeli army is. We can see what this terror state is doing by looking at the situation in Gaza and Jerusalem,” according to the Daily Sabah newspaper. “Israel has carried out a massacre in Gaza and Netanyahu is a terrorist.”
Netanyahu responded by saying, “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from the leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people. That is not the man who is going to lecture us.”
Friday also marked the beginning of the Jewish Passover holiday. It remains to be seen how the Israeli army, the IDF, will try to reinforce the border to prevent a recurrence ahead of future protests culminating in mid-May.
Staff writer: Ari B
Photo Credit: Virpeen Syp