A day after clashes between Israeli soldiers and protesters left 16 Palestinians dead, Israel defended the actions of its military as justified and warned that it would continue to respond aggressively against what a general called acts of terrorism.
Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said Saturday that the protest — dubbed the Great Return March and billed as a nonviolent action — was “not a nonviolent protest. It was an organized, Hamas act of terror using civilians as a cover.”
An estimated 30,000 people participated Friday in the protest along the border fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. It was timed to mark Land Day, commemorating the deaths of six unarmed Israeli Arabs protesting land expropriations in 1976.
As part of the demonstration, tents were erected to symbolize the Palestinians’ intent to stage a vast march on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Among Palestinians, the date is known as Nakba Day, the “day of catastrophe.” The tents were emblazoned with the names of the original refugees' natal villages in what is now Israel, spelled out in Arabic and in Hebrew.
Manelis said the protesters turned violent and hurled firebombs, rocks and burning tires at Israeli soldiers. Troops came under gunfire at least twice, he said.
"I don't know why people call this a protest. It's terror," Manelis said.
He added that “hundreds of terrorists used the demonstration as cover to perpetrate violent acts.”
Foreseeing that the protests will last for weeks, Manelis warned that “we won't let this turn into a pingpong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act, and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues, we will have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip against terrorist targets.”
“People coming toward the fence, attempting to penetrate and break into the fence, damaging the infrastructure or using that area as a staging ground, could potentially be shot,” he warned.
On Saturday, Hamas, the Islamist militia that rules the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist movement by the United States, Europe and Israel, acknowledged that five of the dead were fighters in its military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade.
Israel said all of the 16 killed were engaged in violence against its soldiers and released videos showing Palestinian snipers shooting at soldiers. Faced with allegations spread on social media that it had killed teens in cold blood, Israel identified 10 of the dead and released their photographs under the heading “The Terrorists of the Violent Riots.”
The youngest was Ahmad Odeh, 19, an “active operative” of Hamas’ Shati Battalion. The oldest was Jihad Frina, 35, described as “commander in the Hamas terror organization’s military wing.”
In a second set of photographs, the 10 appeared under the heading, “When the media say civilians, this is who they are talking about.”
“The great majority of the dead were terrorists known to us by name and task,” Manelis said, adding that Israel had identified at least four explosives left alongside the border fence by “terrorists using the demonstration as camouflage.” He said the military acted with restraint and knew “exactly” who its sharpshooters targeted.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation into the Palestinian fatalities. In a statement following an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, he appealed “to those concerned to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties and in particular any measures that could place civilians in harm’s way.”
The meeting was convened by Kuwait, which asked for an unusual closed-door session that left both Israeli and Palestinian representatives outside. Israel attempted to postpone the session until after the Passover holiday, which began at sundown Friday, but after that effort failed, Israeli officials refused to attend any proceedings.
“While Jews around the world gathered with their family at the Seder table to celebrate the Passover holiday, the Palestinians sunk to a new deceitful low so that they could use the U.N. to spread lies about Israel,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., said in a statement released after deliberations were concluded. “This shameful exploitation of our holiday will not succeed in stopping us from speaking the truth about the Hamas terror-gatherings that aim to destabilize the region,” he said.
Friday’s rally constituted the largest Gaza has seen since the Israel-Hamas war in the summer of 2014.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign minister, called for an “independent and transparent investigation” into Israel’s use of live ammunition.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that the United States was “deeply saddened by loss of life in Gaza.”
“We urge those involved to take steps to lower tensions. Int'l community is focused on taking steps that will improve the lives of the Palestinians and is working on a plan for peace. Violence furthers neither of those goals.”
In Israel too, there was scattered but sustained critique of the army’s actions.
Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing opposition party Meretz, called on military authorities to independently investigate whether soldiers were “trigger-happy.”
In a tweet, she said the death toll and Palestinian claims “warrant an independent investigation by Israel, including a probe into the rules of engagement and the military and political readiness for the events.”
But Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman lashed out against those calling for formal inquests.
Israel’s “soldiers held fast against Hamas’ military wing with determination and professionalism, just as we expected of them,” he tweeted. “I support them fully; because of them we celebrated the Passover Seder in security. I do not understand the choir of hypocrites who are calling for a commission of inquiry. They got confused and thought Hamas organized a Woodstock festival and we ought to give them flowers.”