Israel defence minister vows tough response to Gaza protests

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Israel’s defence minister has said the military will not change its tough response to Hamas-led mass protests near Gaza’s border with the country, warning those who approach will endanger their lives.

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

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

Also on Tuesday, 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 cross-border war between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

More than 750 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire, according to Gaza health officials.

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

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.

Mr Lieberman has rejected international calls for an independent investigation.

On Tuesday, he warned Hamas against what he called “continued provocation”.

“We have established clear ground rules and we do not intend to change them,” Mr Lieberman said during a visit to an Israeli communal farm near Gaza. “Anyone who approaches the border is putting his life in danger.”

Israel’s military spokesman, Brig Gen Ronen Manelis, has portrayed stone-throwing, tyre burning and other actions by protesters near the border fence as “acts of terror”.

Briefing journalists on Monday, he did not say in what circumstances protesters were killed on Friday or why lethal force is justified if soldiers are not in apparent imminent danger. He argued that there would have been far more bloodshed in the event of a mass border breach.

In Gaza, protest organisers also prepared for the next confrontation.

Plans were circulated on social media to burn large numbers of tyres on Friday, in hopes that thick black smoke would block the view of Israeli snipers. Others suggested trying to disrupt the vision of soldiers with mirrors.

The planned protests seem to be the last hope for Hamas to try to break a border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007, when the group seized Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Two other blockade-busting strategies – war with Israel and reconciliation with Mr Abbas – have failed.

Hamas has said the border protests would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation.

Palestinians mourn the date as the anniversary of their “catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands were uprooted from what is now Israel.

Two-thirds of Gaza’s two million people are descendants of refugees. Life in Gaza has become increasingly harsh after more than a decade of closures, with residents enduring daily power outages lasting hours.

Hamas has said the protests would culminate in a March of Return, implying the demonstrators would at some point try to cross the border fence into Israeli territory.

However, Hamas officials have not specifically called for a mass breach of the fence.

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