Liberman warns of 'much harsher' Israeli response to continued Gaza violence
Jack GUEZ (AFP)
Israel's defense minister Avigdor Liberman warned Sunday that continued violence along the Gaza border would draw a harsh response after a weekend of bloody clashes that left sixteen Palestinians dead.
Sixteen Palestinians were killed by IDF fire on Friday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators surged towards the border. Of the 16 killed, 10 were members of Palestinian terror groups, including five members of the Islamist Hamas group which rules the blockaded enclave, the Israeli army said.
Warning against resuming protests, the hawkish defense minister threatened that Israel "can respond much more harshly next time" and would not "hesitate to use everything we have."
Liberman claimed that the march had cost organizers $15 million and that the majority of participants were "Hamas officials or activists who are paid salaries by Hamas, together with their families."
"Do you know how much medicine you could buy with a sum like this? The fact that [Hamas] budgets such a sum for blatant terror activities says it all," he said.
Liberman also vowed there would be no international inquiry into the IDF's conduct during the clashes, lashing out at the "procession of hypocrites" who demanded an investigation into the army's use of live fire against protesters.
"Any state whose borders people tried to crash would act in an even more severe way than we did, and therefore the procession of hypocrites calling for a committee of inquiry must understand that there will be no such thing," Liberman said. "There will not be any international inquiry. We will not cooperate with any inquiry of this kind."
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remained on high alert on Sunday morning, as mass protests which turned deadly over the weekend were expected to spill into a third day.
The IDF arrested an unarmed Palestinian who attempted to breach the border in the Kissufim area of central Gaza on Sunday morning, and fired warning shots towards others who approached the heavily fortified security fence.
The IDF was said to be preparing for Hamas to escalate the tensions, as violence appeared to subside as demonstrators slowly left the border area. Israel’s Hadashot television reported that the army was concerned that Palestinian terror groups could fire rockets at southern Israeli communities as protests waned.
The army revealed Sunday morning that additional Iron Dome missile defense batteries were deployed to southern Israel out of concern over potential rocket fire.
The army said 30,000 Palestinians took part in Friday’s planned rallies endorsed by all Palestinian factions to mark 'Land Day', which commemorates the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.
Calling it the 'Great March of Return,' protesters were demanding hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948 be allowed to return.
Israel, meanwhile, accused Gaza militant groups of using the protests as a cover to either break through the border or launch terror attacks.
Gaza’s health ministry said that in addition to the 16 Palestinians killed, more than 1,400 were wounded Friday, 758 of them by live fire, with the remainder hurt by rubber bullets and tear gas inhalation.
Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, saying Israeli soldiers opened fire on protesters who did not pose a threat, while human rights groups questioned Israel's use of live fire.
Video footage which emerged shortly after Friday’s violence appeared to show that in one case, a rioter whom the IDF identified as a member of Hamas, was seemingly shot in the back as he ran away from the border.
The IDF rejected all claims of excessive use of force, and said it opened fire only when necessary against those taking an active part in violence. It accused Hamas of doctoring or fabricating its videos.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday praised troops for "guarding the country's borders".
"Well done to our soldiers," he wrote in a statement. "Israel acts vigorously and with determination to protect its sovereignty and the security of its citizens."
Meanwhile, UN chief Antonio Guterres called for an "independent and transparent investigation" and European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini followed suit, calling in a statement for a probe into Israel's use of live ammunition.
Turkey, Jordan and Egypt all accused Israel of using "disproportionate force" while Kuwait demanded an emergency session of the UN Security Council to discuss the violence.
A draft statement put forth to the Council urging restraint and calling for an "independent and transparent investigation" of the violence was blocked by the United States, which raised objections and said it did not support its adoption.
The mass protests and ensuing violence was some of the worst along the tense Israel-Gaza border in years. Thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals of those killed, with mourners calling for revenge.
IDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis warned Friday that if violence continued, the army would strike back against the Palestinian terror groups inciting the protests rather than restricting its response to only those trying to breach the border.
“In the weeks leading up to the event the IDF received much information suggesting that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups would try to use the protests to mask terror attacks,” Manelis said, adding that if violence continued “we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places too.”
The Friday protests kicked off an expected six weeks of demonstrations, set to climax on May 15, when Israel will mark 70 years of independence -- a day Palestinians mark as the “nakba” (“catastrophe” in Arabic”) -- and the United States will cut the ribbon on its controversial new embassy in Jerusalem.
Hamas warned on Friday that the thousands of Palestinians confronting the Israeli military along Gaza's border with Israel are sending a message to US President Donald Trump that Palestinians will never accept his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital or support any "concession" in Washington's mooted peace plan.
Hamas, an Islamist group that rules Gaza with an iron first, stakes out a maximalist position on the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ruling out any compromise with "illegitimate" Israel.
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