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Israeli leaders dismiss criticism over Gaza deaths

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, March 25, 2018.
Abir Sultan, Pool via AP

Israel's defense minister on Saturday dismissed mounting criticism of the military's handling of mass protests in Gaza over two consecutive weeks, instead accusing the United Nations and the media of ignoring the Syrian civil war.

Twenty-nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire since last Friday, the health ministry in Gaza has said, including a 16-year-old and a journalist who was wearing a jacket marked "press."

The Israeli military said it had to "resort" to live fire when demonstrators threw explosives, Molotov cocktails and attempted to breach the heavily fortified fence separating Israel from the blockaded enclave.

The high death toll elicited expressions of alarm from the UN, European Union and Israeli opposition lawmakers.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "saluted" the Israeli soldiers "who protect us at all times."

SAID KHATIB (AFP)

"They [the protesters] talk about human rights, but actually want to crush the Jewish state," he said. "We won't let them."

He was joined by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who wrote on Twitter that "Hamas sends terrorists under the guise of civilians to harm our sovereignty, and the world presents this parade of terror as a civil protest."

Noting the Syrian regime's renewed aerial onslaught on a rebel-held enclave on Friday that killed over 40 people, Liberman lashed out at the UN, Arab League and international news channel the BBC.

"The UN Secretary-General did not call for a commission of inquiry [into the air strikes], the Security Council did not convene, the Arab League ignored it, and on the BBC, of course, it was neither seen nor heard about."

Several Palestinian factions have called for weeks of border protests to demand the return of Palestinians to land they were forced from or fled after the founding of Israel 70 years ago.

They come with tensions high as the United States gears up to shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after recognizing the disputed city as the capital of the Jewish state.

The US used its veto power on Friday night to scotch a Kuwaiti attempt to convince the UN Security Council to issue a statement addressing the renewed Gaza clashes, which came after some 40,000 took part in similar protests a week ago.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned the US decision not to countenance even a "modest" and "non-binding" statement.

The death of photojournalist Yasser Murtaja, 30, who the Hamas-run health ministry said died after being shot by Israeli soldiers, has caused particular alarm. The Palestinian journalists' union said another five were hit.

The EU said his death along with eight others "raises serious questions about the proportionate use of force which must be addressed."

A statement added that reports of violence by Palestinian demonstrators "should be clarified."

Reporters without Borders, a global press freedom watchdog, accused Israel's military of deliberately firing on journalists, a claim an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson rejected.

Zionist Union lawmaker and ex-journalist Ksenia Svetlova also urged the military to investigate Murtaja's death.

"According to what is known, he did not threaten anyone and did not try to cross the fence," she wrote on Twitter.

"It was forbidden to shoot him or any other journalist. I call on the IDF to investigate the incident and prevent such incidents in the future."

AP Photo/Adel Hana

Israel rebuffed international calls for an investigation into last Friday's killings, with the army saying troops opened fire "in accordance with the rules of engagement".

The military is even preparing to ramp up its response if demonstrations continue next week, Haaretz reported on Saturday.

Unnamed military sources told the paper that it is considering carrying out air strikes on the Strip if demonstrators use violence again.

Israel says Hamas, with whom it has fought three wars since 2008, uses the protests as a cover to carry out violence.

It alleges more than half of those killed on March 30 were members of militant groups, including Hamas's armed wing.

Hamas claimed only five of the dead and said they were participating "in popular events side-by-side with their people."

Read more:

Nine Palestinians killed in renewed Gaza border protests

Palestinian envoy condemns US stance on Gaza protests

AFP contributed to this report.

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