By Middle East Affairs and Reuters
Four Palestinians were killed and 729 others injuried Friday by Israeli fire, rubber bullets and tear gas while protesting along the Gaza-Israel border, reported the Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qedra named two of the deceased as Ahmad Rashad Athamneh, 24, and Ahmed Nabiel Abu-Aqel, 25.
The other deaths were Mohammed Ayoub, 15, and Said Abd Al-Aal Abu Taha, 19, Palestinian health officials said. At least 100 people were wounded by Israeli gunfire, the officials said.
During Friday’s demonstrations, some protesters were using catapults and sling-shots to launch stones at Israeli forces and tried to cut through the border fence with wire-cutters.
“As the crowd grew, Israeli soldiers called out warnings in Arabic over loudspeakers to individuals who approached the border fence.”
The demonstrations began March 30 and on Fridays protesters burn tires, kites and flags as they edge closer to the fences. This Friday’s theme is a dedication to Palestine’s “martyrs.”
Israeli troops are posted along the border with snipers and were told to ensure that no one crosses it. They were given permission to shoot at the lower bodies of protesters, but if someone appears to be carrying explosives or firearms, they may shoot to kill. So far, 34 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations by Israeli fire, while several thousands more have been injured.
Israel maintains that Hamas, the armed group in control of the Gaza Strip, is using the protests as a decoy for potential attacks on Israel or to kidnap Israeli soldiers, which Hamas denies.
Haaretz said there have been a number of attempts over the past week, especially by Egypt, to convince Hamas to stop the mass protests and the marches. “The requests were rebuffed by Hamas, with the claim the protests are a popular movement backed by all Palestinian factions.”
The committee organizing the protests said the marches will continue until May 15, which is Israel’s 70th anniversary and when the United States Embassy will officially open its doors in Jerusalem.
In preparation for Friday’s protests, the IDF dropped leaflets in Gaza on Friday to advise protesters against violence or attempting to breach the border, Haaretz said.
According to the news agency, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said: “The violent riots in the past weeks made use of civilians to cover terrorist acts against Israel’s security infrastructure and IDF forces. The IDF will not allow an attack on security infrastructure and the fence that protects Israeli citizens and will take action against anyone who tries to harm Israeli security.”
The leaflets, dropped by Israeli aircraft early in the morning and obtained by Haaretz, read: “You are participating in violent disturbances. Hamas is taking advantage of you to carry out terrorist attacks. The IDF is prepared for any scenario.
“Avoid using weapons and carrying out violent acts against Israeli security forces and Israeli civilians. Keep away from terrorist elements and groups pushing riots and violence. The IDF will take action against any attempt to damage the barrier and its components and any other military equipment. Hamas is using you to advance the interests of its movement. Don’t follow Hamas orders that endanger your lives. It is possible [to act differently] – your future is in your hands.”
Islamic Jihad also released a video Thursday threatening Israeli soldiers before the weekly demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, Haaretz reported.
The video shows the point-of-view through a rifle aimed at Israeli military figures, such as Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories. The video ends with the message: “You’re killing our people in cold blood and think that you’re protected, but our snipers’ sights are on your top commanders.”
More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.
The protest campaign, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” is leading up to May 15, when Palestinians mark Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe, commemorating their displacement around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.
It takes place at a time of growing frustration over the prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognise disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further fueled Palestinian anger.
In an apparent sign of concern over the bloodshed on the border, the Israeli-American Hollywood actress Natalie Portman announced she was pulling out of a ceremony in Israel to accept a million-dollar prize because of “distressing” events in the country.
In a statement, the Genesis Prize Foundation quoted a representative for Portman as saying: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”
It gave no further details of her reasons. But the foundation said it “admires her humanity, and respects her right to publicly disagree with the policies of the government of Israel.”
Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, suggested the actress was supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate Israel economically over its treatment of Palestinians. Israel sees the BDS movement as an attempt to delegitimise it.
The Genesis Prize is awarded to individuals for excellence in their professional fields and “who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.”