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40 hurt as Israel warns against burning kites at Palestinian demonstration in Gaza

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Hundreds of Palestinian protesters have gathered next to the fence along the Israeli border east of Gaza City. Heavy Israeli gunfire was heard Friday afternoon as the crowd broke away from a larger protest and moved toward the fence. (April 27) AP

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Forty Palestinians, including three journalists, were injured in protests near Israel’s barrier with the Gaza Strip on the sixth Friday of demonstrations there.

Israel’s military warned against flying kites after wildfires were set Thursday by burning kites flown from Gaza into Israeli territory.

“Rioters are flying kites with burning items, intending to ignite fires in Israel,” the Israel Defense Forces announced on Twitter. “Also, rioters hurled an explosive device at IDF troops who are responding with riot dispersal means & fire in accordance with the rules of engagement.”

Ten firefighting teams spent hours Thursday putting out a forest fire set by a burning kite, and a wheat field was burned earlier in the week, according to Israeli TV station Arutz Sheva.

Palestinians each Friday for the past month and a half have threatened to rush the border fence between Gaza and Israel in protest. In response, the Israeli military has ordered soldiers to fire at people’s legs if they pose a threat.

So far, at least 45 people have been killed, including four children and two journalists. The number of wounded has reached 5,500, according to the United Nations.

The demonstrations, which began March 30, reflect a long-simmering demand by Palestinians for the right of return to Israel while Israel says Palestinians should settle in a future Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

The deadly confrontations, known as the Great March of Return, are set to reach a climax on May 15. Organizers and leaders from the terrorist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, will urge masses of Palestinians to walk through the fence into Israel to reclaim homes left by their parents and grandparents in 1948 — the year Israel was formed.

The demonstrations have attracted as many as 30,000 participants, according to media reports. Danny Yatom, who led Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency from 1996 to 1998, worries that Hamas will mobilize three times that many people by mid-May.

“If they bring a hundred thousand demonstrators there will be a lot casualties,” Yatom said during a visit to Washington this week for the Israel Policy Forum, which supports a two-state peace between Israel and Palestinians. “Their aim is to continue and march to one of our villages, hundreds of meters from the border,” he said.

What do the demonstrators want?

The march was sparked by a Facebook post months ago by Gazan political activist Ahmed Abu Artima, who suggested thousands of unarmed Palestinians walk toward the border fence.

Artima rejects Hamas’ notion of defeating Israel, but wants to end the separation between Palestinians and Israelis. “I don’t believe in liberation,” Artima told Israel’s Ynet News, an online newspaper. “I want to live alongside Israelis.”

Palestinian leaders also demand the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from their homes in what is now Israel. Some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1948.

“If Palestinian refugees decide one day to break through the fence and enter Israel en-masse, that is their legal and principled right, but we have no intention of doing that in the campaign’s first phase,” Artima told Ynet in the beginning of April

Around 70% of Gaza’s 2 million population are descendants of those refugees, and now live in an area about the size of Philadelphia, according to the International Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza (ICBSG), an association of groups that oppose the control of goods entering Gaza by Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

For Israel, the influx of even a portion of the 3.5 million Palestinian refugees around the world would overwhelm the majority Jewish democracy of 8.5 million people, of whom 25% are not Jewish.

Are the protests non-violent?

The protests were conceived as non-violent civil disobedience. Organizers have quoted peaceful protest icons such as Mahatma Gandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to ICBSG.

Thousands of men, women and children have gathered in tent encampments at a safe distance from the border fence. But militants have joined the protest movement and urged other participants to burn tires close to the fence, and to hurl stones and gasoline bombs toward Israeli soldiers on the other side.

According to Israeli authorities, Hamas also detonated two bombs near a border patrol passing along the fence, while others were shot trying to cut the fence and enter Israel. There have been no Israeli injuries associated with the protests.

While rock throwers and burning tires marked the front edge of the demonstration, the majority of participants have engaged in non-violent activities, the result of an important lesson learned by Palestinians, says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Non-violent protest “reveals a very significant weakness for the Israelis because they don’t know how to handle it,” Munayyer said. “These people are not coming at them with weapons, machine guns or rockets or anything like that. The only way (the Israelis) know how to deal with it is how they deal with everything they view as a threat, which is to use force.”

What do human rights groups say?

Human rights groups have condemned Israel for disproportionate use of deadly force.

“The Israeli government presented no evidence that rock-throwing and other violence by some demonstrators seriously threatened Israeli soldiers across the border fence,” Human Rights Watch said after the first protests of March 30 resulted in 14 Palestinian deaths and hundreds of injuries. “Footage of demonstrators provided by the army includes no evidence of firearms.”

Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said Israel’s military should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Israeli soldiers “were apparently acting on orders that all but ensured a bloody military response to the Palestinian demonstrations,” Goldstein said. “The result was foreseeable deaths and injuries of demonstrators.”

Amnesty International called on Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest and to use lethal force only “when unavoidable.”

What does Israel say?

Israel says it has the right to defend its borders, protect its citizens and prevent illegal infiltration.

“Responsibility for any clashes that may arise will thus lie solely with Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations who have manufactured this entire campaign,” according to a statement by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Yatom, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces, called the protests a smoke screen for launching attacks at Israel. For Hamas, the demonstrations show the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the world, that Hamas remains a force to be reckoned with, he said.

The group has failed to effectively govern the Gaza Strip, which it violently took over from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007. In recent negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas refused to transfer command of its military wing to the Palestinian Authority.

“To the rest of the world, (it shows) that Israel kills innocent people,” he said. “For them, as many casualties as possible is good.”

How does Israel explain its use of force?

Yatom, who commanded Israeli military’s central command from 1991 to 1993 during the first Palestinian uprising, said Israeli soldiers are following a use of force policy developed over the years.

“We do not open fire immediately or automatically,” he said.

Soldiers are supposed to seek authorization from top commanders. They’re required to shout “stop or you will be shot” before firing, “and then to aim at the legs,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes soldiers miss.”

Deadly force is only supposed to be used when a soldier or comrade’s life is at risk, Yatom said.

Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja died April 7. He was shot in the abdomen while covering protests in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. He was wearing a vest marked “PRESS,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Israel’s Defense Forces said it is investigating Murtaja’s death.

What do world leaders say?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s new top diplomat, this week supported Israel’s handling of the protests.

“We do believe that Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we’re fully supportive of that,” Pompeo said Monday in Jordan.

The European Parliament condemned Hamas “for instigating violence and for its terrorist activities on the Israel-Gaza border.” Parliament members also urged Israel and Palestinians “to use non-violent means and respect human rights.”

Arab leaders reacted in a more muted fashion. The Arab League, representing all the Arab nations, issued a statement holding Israel responsible for any deaths. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted in early April saying Jews have a right to a homeland.

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