Israel rejects calls for inquiry into deaths of Gaza border protesters

Gaza City: Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has rejected calls for an inquiry into the deaths of at least 15 Palestinians, saying that troops “deserve a commendation” for their response to protests at the Gaza border.

The “March of Return” to mark the anniversary of land appropriation by Israel in 1976 drew tens of thousands of Gaza residents to points along the border fence on Friday.

Israel’s use of live ammunition to push them back triggered calls by the United Nations, rights groups and Gaza families for an investigation.

A Palestinian protester hurls stones toward Israeli soldiers during a protest in eastern Gaza City on Saturday.

The Israeli military said it adhered to rules of engagement during what it characterised as an attempt by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to break through the fence into Israel and endanger its security.

The Palestinian representative to the United States, Husam Zomlot, accused Israel of “indiscriminate murder” and called opening fire on demonstrators “morally repugnant and a crime against humanity.”

Lieberman told Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday that only people who tried to approach the border fence had been shot. Israel’s military says its rules of engagement are confidential but comply with international law.

“Under no circumstances will a commission of inquiry be established,” Lieberman said.

Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but the United Nations still considers it occupied territory because Israel has “effective control”. The movement of goods and people has been severely restricted since Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organisation, took over Gaza 11 years ago, with Israel citing security concerns.

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas, and tensions have been building again in recent months, as rocket fire from Gaza became more frequent following the announcement by President Donald Trump that the United States would recognise Israel as Jerusalem’s capital.

A growing humanitarian crisis has fuelled frustrations, with Palestinians in Gaza laying primary blame on the continuing restrictions by Israel. The border with Egypt also remains largely closed, while punitive financial measures levelled by the Palestinian Authority against rival Hamas have added to Gaza’s woes.

No Israeli soldiers have been reported injured in the border demonstrations so far, but Israel has accused Hamas of attempting to use the protests as cover to carry out attacks. On the Palestinian side, the Gaza Health Ministry said more than 700 people suffered gunshot wounds on Friday alone.

At Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, administrative workers at the reception showed computer records that listed 283 people admitted with injuries sustained in the border demonstrations. Eight were referrals from other hospitals. Al-Shifa is the main medical facility in the Gaza Strip but one of more than a dozen hospitals and clinics that took in casualties.

“Most of them were direct gunshots to the lower limbs,” said Ayman al-Sahbani, head of Al-Shifa’s emergency department. He said the injured included 11 women and 70 children under 18.

At the border on Friday, families sat and picnicked further from the fence as crowds streamed toward it holding Palestinian flags. Israel had said that anyone coming within 300 metres of the fence risked being shot. Some men closest to the barrier threw stones, while Israel’s military also accused some of hurling molotov cocktails and attempting to break through the fence.

During the peak of the demonstrations, at one point on the border near Gaza City, there was a gunshot injury every few minutes. Gunfire continued in consistent bursts throughout the day, as did the use of tear gas, sometimes dropped from drones. The Israeli military said it attempted to use other crowd-dispersal tactics where possible.

All the injured people observed by The Washington Post over the course of the day appeared to have been shot in the legs.

Crowds at the border thinned over the weekend, and there were fewer casualties. The health ministry in Gaza said nine people were injured on Sunday. At the hospital in Gaza City, Adam Abu Ghanima, 23, had just been brought in with a gunshot wound to the knee. While some of those injured said they were just there to demonstrate, two of those injured said they were among groups that carried wire cutters and hoped to penetrate the barrier.

Ghanima said he had tried to plant a flag on the border fence and that soldiers had fired a warning shot but that he had ignored it. He said he’d been demonstrating every day since Friday, wincing as doctors raised his leg to apply extra bandages.

The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza has said a total of 15 people were killed on Friday, but Israel has also said that it is holding the bodies of two men it said carried out a “shooting attack” on the northern border – bringing the number to 17. Hamas said five of its militants were among those killed on Friday. Israel said 10 belonged to armed factions.

Zomlot said that Friday’s “atrocities deserve the strongest condemnation from the US government and action to uphold international law”. State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said on Saturday that the United States is “deeply saddened” by the loss of life in Gaza, urging those involved to take steps to lower tensions.

Hamas and other Palestinian factions organising the demonstrations in Gaza hope to sustain them for more than a month longer, until the anniversary of Israel’s independence in mid-May. They are expected to remain relatively small until Friday, a customary day for protests.

Israel has said it will step up its response if protests continue.