by Nikki Guttman, Daniel Siryoti, Shlomi Diaz, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Israel will mount a far more forceful response if Palestinians resume violent protests, defense minister says
A Palestinian protester near the Israel-Gaza Strip border, FridayPhoto: AP
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Sunday that Israel would mount a far harsher response if the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip resumed violent protests the likes of which were seen on the Israel-Gaza Strip border on Friday.
Several clashes erupted on the southern border and in the West Bank on Saturday, on the heels of the mass march the day before.
The Israeli military said protesters torched tires and hurled rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops, who responded with crowd-control measures.
The Palestinians reported that 70 Palestinians were wounded on Saturday.
Some 30,000 Palestinians took part in the Hamas-organized march along the Gaza border on Friday, during which hundreds of rioters hurled firebombs, set tires on fire and stoned Israeli troops.
Palestinian sources said 17 people were killed and some 1,400 were wounded in riots on the border. The Gaza Health Ministry said that 758 of the casualties were wounded by live fire, with the remainder hurt by rubber bullets and tear-gas inhalation.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence and declared Saturday a national day of mourning and a general strike in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza Saturday in the funerals for 15 of the men killed the day before, while solidarity protests and riots were held in several Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
Dozens of Palestinians rioted near Damascus Gate in east Jerusalem. The Israel Police dispersed the demonstration using crowd-control measures, and several protesters were arrested.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh issued a statement to the families of those killed Friday, saying, "You sacrificed your loved ones for the liberation [of Palestine] and for Al-Aqsa [mosque] and Jerusalem. Yesterday's march opened the door to a return to all of Palestine. Yesterday's shahids [martyrs] have set our future borders."
The IDF said Saturday that 10 of the men killed in Friday's border riots were known terrorists.
The military named the terrorists killed as Hamas operatives Musab Saloul, 23; Sari Abu Odeh, 28; Jihad Farina, 35; Ahmed Odeh, 19; Hamdan Abu Amsha, 25; Hamoud Rahmi, 33; Mohammed Abu Amr, 27; and Abdel Fatah Abdel Nabi, 20.
Global jihad operative Ibrahim Abu Sha'ar, 29 and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operative Jihad Zahir Salman Abu Jamous, 30, were also killed Friday, the IDF said.
Israel is said to be holding two bodies, both of terrorists killed Friday while trying to carry out a shooting attack against an IDF force patrolling the security fence.
On Sunday, the families of two Israeli soldiers, killed in Gaza in 2014 and whose remains are being held by Hamas, called on the government and the defense establishment to use the terrorists' bodies as leverage to secure the return of their sons' remains.
On Saturday, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as cover to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15, when the Palestinians mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the displacement of Palestinian refugees, called the "Nakba" ("catastrophe") in Arabic, during Israel's War of Independence.
"We won't let this [the border] turn into a pingpong zone where they perpetrate terrorist acts and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip," Manelis told reporters.
He warned the IDF will target terrorist groups inside Gaza if violence along the territory's border with Israel drags on.
It appears unlikely protests will continue at such a scale, with larger turnouts only expected after Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.
Manelis denied soldiers used excessive force during Friday's riots on the border, asserting that those killed were known terrorists. He further said that Gaza health officials had exaggerated the number of wounded.
He reiterated Saturday that Israel "will not allow a massive breach of the fence into Israeli territory."
Hamas and other terrorist groups in the coastal enclave "are using protests as a cover for staging attacks," he said, warning that if the violence continues, "we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places as well."
Lieberman also pledged that there would be no international inquiry into the clashes, despite demands to that effect by parts of the international community.
"IDF soldiers warded off Hamas military wing operatives with determination and professionalism, just as we expected them to do. They have my full backing. Thanks to them, we celebrated the Passover Seder peacefully," he tweeted.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also lauded the IDF's actions, saying, "Thank you to our soldiers, who guard Israel's borders and allow the Israeli public to celebrate the holiday quietly. Israel acts with determination and resolve to defend its sovereignty and the security of its citizens."
Nikki Guttman, Daniel Siryoti, Shlomi Diaz, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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