Protest camps quiet as Gazans fast and fill sandbags

A Palestinian man reads the Koran inside a tent during the holy month of Ramadan, at a protest camp near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Young men filled sandbags to prepare for future protests at encampments along Gaza’s Israeli border on Thursday, though tents were mostly empty as Palestinians joined Muslims around the world observing the daylight fast at the start of Ramadan.

After the bloodiest day for Palestinians in years on Monday, when 60 were killed by Israeli gunfire during mass demonstrations that Israel said included attempts to breach its frontier fence, calm and a heatwave descended on the area.

Organisers of the protests that began on March 30 set Friday as a day to honour the dead and urged Gazans to flock again to the tent cities. But Ramadan traditions – prayer, family visits and feasts – seemed to keep crowds away during the hot hours.

At one encampment, about 70 young men filled sandbags in anticipation of people returning to the protest sites.

“We are making a sand barrier so people can feel a bit safer,” one of the men said, declining to give his name.

Ramadan is usually a time of celebration, but after dozens of funerals during the week the mood was bleak in Gaza.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said on Wednesday neighboring Egypt had put pressure on Hamas, the armed Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, to scale back the protests.

Hamas denied it had come under Egyptian pressure to curb the protests, which provoked international condemnation of Israel’s deadly tactics in putting down the unrest. The organizing committee for the demonstrations said Muslims’ abstinence from food and drink during the hot mornings and afternoons of Ramadan would be taken into account in further protests.

The “March of Return” demonstrations advocate the return of Palestinians to lands lost to Israel during its founding in 1948, and are also intended to draw attention to harsh conditions in Gaza, where the economy has collapsed under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.

Israel, with U.S. backing, says Hamas is behind the protests, deliberately provoking violence for propaganda aims. Hamas says the demonstrations are a popular outpouring of anger, and Israel carried out a “massacre” in response.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Dawoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee, said activities at the encampments would get under way only in the late afternoon when temperatures drop. Late-night prayers will also be held there, he said.

“The marches are continuing and there are calls on people to gather in mass on Friday in a day we have dedicated to glorifying the martyrs,” Shehab told Reuters.

The message was echoed in appeals blared by loudspeakers on vehicles that drove into Gaza neighborhoods to urge people to turn out. Organisers said the protest would stretch into June.

Violence along the border has been comparatively limited over the past two days, with no casualties reported by either side since Tuesday, when two Palestinians were killed while dozens of others were buried.

Early on Thursday, Israeli aircraft hit four Hamas targets in the northern Gaza Strip in response to heavy machine gun fire that struck houses in the Israeli town of Sderot, the Israeli military said.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade since Gaza fell under control of the militant group that denies Israel’s right to exist. Israel and Egypt say their de facto blockade of the strip is necessary for security reasons.

The World Bank says it has driven Gaza to economic collapse, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 2 million people are now dependent on aid.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel says Hamas curbed Gaza protests after Egyptian warning

Relatives mourn during the funeral of a Palestinian, who was killed during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, in the central Gaza Strip May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian protests on the Gaza-Israel border have dropped off over the past two days, with Israel on Wednesday pointing to what it said were Egyptian efforts to restore calm after dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Gaza’s dominant Islamist Hamas movement denied that it was under pressure from neighboring Egypt to scale back the six-week-old demonstrations, and said they would continue, although fewer Palestinians were now gathering in protest tents.

Gaza medics said two Palestinians were shot dead during Tuesday’s demonstrations along the 51 km (32 mile) border. On Monday, 60 were killed in a far greater turnout on the day the United States relocated its Israel embassy to Jerusalem.

Pushing back against foreign censure of its army’s actions, Israel has – with Washington’s backing – accused Hamas of using civilians as cover for attacks across the frontier fence and to distract from Gaza’s internal problems. Hamas denies this.

Angered by the U.S. embassy move and the Gaza bloodshed, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and consul to Istanbul, Ankara said on Wednesday. Israel responded to its envoy’s expulsion on Tuesday by expelling Turkey’s Jerusalem consul.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry announced the recall for consultations of its envoys in Romania, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, citing those EU members’ participation in an official Israeli reception on Sunday for a U.S. delegation that inaugurated the American Embassy in Jerusalem.

There has been little Israeli domestic dissent at the lethal tactics around Gaza, where in the last decade Israel has fought three wars against Hamas, a group sworn to its destruction.

Dubbed the March of Return, the protests were launched on March 30 to demand Palestinian access to family lands or homes lost to Israel during its founding in a 1948 war. Larger crowds have flocked to the border after Muslim prayers on Fridays.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a de facto blockade on Gaza which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse during more than a decade of Hamas rule and repeated war with Israel.

Two million people live in the narrow strip, most stateless descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of homes in Israel at the time of its founding. They suffer from what the World Bank says is one of the highest rates of unemployment on earth, and say the blockade makes rebuilding impossible.

Gaza analyst Akram Attallah, pointing to the smaller number of protesters since Monday’s deaths, said: “I can see there is a retreat because of the Israeli bloody response … but Friday will represent an indicator to where things are going.”

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh made a brief visit on Sunday to Egypt, which has sought to act as a broker between the Islamists and other Palestinian factions, as well as Israel.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said an Egyptian intelligence chief, whom he did not name, warned Haniyeh that Cairo “knows and has proof” that Hamas was funding the protests and sending people to the border fence to serve “as living ammunition, women and children instead of shells and rockets”.

HOLDING FAST

The Egyptian official “made unequivocally clear to him (Haniyeh) that if this continues, Israel will respond and take far harsher steps, and Egypt will stand by and will not help,” Katz told Israel Radio in an interview.

“Haniyeh returned to Gaza, Hamas gave an order … and miraculously, this spontaneous protest by a public that could not handle the situation any more dissipated.”

There was no immediate response from Egypt to Katz’s statements, which Hamas dismissed as false.

“There is no mediation. The marches will continue until our people achieve their goals,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

At a news conference at a protest encampment on Wednesday, Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, urged people to take part in mass rallies on Friday.

But the start on Thursday of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours, could limit the scale of the demonstrations.

In a statement issued at the news conference, the factions said the fasting would be taken into account. They said marches would continue through early June.

Organisers say the Gaza protests are civilian actions, noting the absence of Israeli casualties, compared to 107 Palestinian dead and thousands of wounded. Israel disputes this. The army said 14 of those killed on Monday were shot while firing on Israeli troops or trying to blow up the fence.

In Jerusalem, following the U.S. lead, Guatemala opened its embassy in the city on Wednesday. Paraguay is slated to do the same next week.

Most countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, however, saying the status of the holy city should be decided in peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, which want to have their own capital there. Those talks have been stalled since 2014.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector captured in the 1967 Middle East, as its capital. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean; Editing by Peter Graff)

Gazans bury dead after bloodiest day of Israel border protests

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Thousands of Gaza residents turned out on Tuesday for the funerals of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops a day earlier, while on the Gaza-Israel border, Israeli forces prepared to face the expected final day of a Palestinian protest campaign.

Monday’s violence on the border, which took place as the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, was the bloodiest for Palestinians since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

The death toll rose to 60 overnight after an eight-month-old baby died from tear gas that her family said she inhaled at a protest camp on Monday. More than 2,200 Palestinians were also injured by gunfire or tear gas, Palestinian medics said.

Palestinian leaders have called Monday’s events a massacre, and the Israeli tactic of using live fire against the protesters has drawn worldwide concern and condemnation.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet to discuss the situation.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defense to defend its borders and communities. Its main ally the United States has backed that stance, with both saying that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave, instigated the violence.

On Tuesday morning, mourners marched through Gaza, waving Palestinian flags and calling for revenge.

“With souls and blood we redeem you martyrs,” they shouted.

There were fears of further bloodshed as a six-week protest campaign was due to reach its climax.

May 15 is traditionally the day Palestinians mark the “Nakba”, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes in violence culminating in war between the newly created Jewish state and its Arab neighbors in 1948.

The protests, dubbed “The Great March of Return,” began on March 30 and revived calls for refugees to have the right of return to their former lands, which now lie inside Israel.

Israel rejects any right of return, fearing that it would deprive the state of its Jewish majority.

Palestinian medical officials say 105 Gazans have now been killed since the start of the protests and nearly 11,000 people wounded, about 3,500 of them hit by live fire. Israeli officials dispute those numbers. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

More than 2 million people are crammed into the narrow Gaza Strip, more than two thirds of them refugees. Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the enclave, deepening economic hardship and raising humanitarian concerns.

SHARPSHOOTERS

On the Israeli side of the border, Israeli sharpshooters took up positions to stop any attempted breach of the fence should demonstrations break out again. Tanks were also deployed.

A senior Israeli commander said that of the 60 Gazans killed on Monday, 14 were carrying out attacks and 14 others were militants.

He also said Palestinians protesters were using hundreds of pipe bombs, grenades and fire-bombs. Militants had opened fire on Israeli troops and tried to set off bombs by the fence.

Many casualties were caused by Palestinians carrying out devices that went off prematurely,” he said.

“We approve every round fired before it is fired. Every target is spotted in advance. We know where the bullet lands and where it is aimed,” said the commander, who spoke on condition that he not be named, in accordance with Israeli regulations.

“However reality on the ground is such that unintended damage is caused,” he said.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office condemned what it called the “appalling deadly violence” by Israeli forces.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Israel had a right to defend its borders according to international law, but lethal force must only be used a last resort, and was not justified by Palestinians approaching the Gaza fence.

The U.N. rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Michael Lynk, said Israel’s use of force may amount to a war crime.

YOUNG VICTIM

In Gaza City, hundreds marched in the funeral of eight-month-old Leila al-Ghandour, whose body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

“Let her stay with me, It is too early for her to go,” her mother cried, pressing the baby’s body to her chest.

Speaking earlier, her grandmother said the child was at one of the tented protest camps and had inhaled tear gas.

“When we got back home, the baby stopped crying and I thought she was asleep. I took her to the children’s hospital and the doctor told me she was martyred (dead),” Heyam Omar said.

Many shops in East Jerusalem were shut throughout the day following a call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a general strike across the Palestinian Territories. A 70-second siren was sounded in the occupied West Bank in commemoration of the Nakba.

HOLY CITY

Most Gaza protesters stay around tent camps but groups have ventured closer to the border fence, rolling burning tyres and throwing stones. Some have flown kites carrying containers of petrol that spread fires on the Israeli side.

Monday’s protests were fueled by the opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem following its relocation from Tel Aviv. The move fulfilled a pledge by U.S. President Donald Trump, who in December recognized the contested city as the Israeli capital.

Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Netanyahu praised Trump’s decisions but Palestinians have said the United States can no longer serve as an honest broker in any peace process. Talks aimed a finding a two-state solution to the conflict have been frozen since 2014.

Trump said on Monday he remained committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. His administration says it has nearly completed a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan but is undecided on how and when to roll it out.

Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the Gaza violence. Hamas denied instigating it but the White House backed Netanyahu, saying Hamas “intentionally and cynically provoking this response”.

The United States on Monday blocked a Kuwait-drafted U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed “outrage and sorrow at the killing of Palestinian civilians” and called for an independent investigation, U.N. diplomats said.

In the British parliament, junior foreign office minister Alistair Burt said the United States needed to show more understanding about the causes of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hamas’ role in the violence must be investigated, he added.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Israeli troops facing 7000 Gaza protesters, fire shots, tear gas at Gaza

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during clashes at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli troops fired live rounds and tear gas at Palestinians thronging the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as part of a long-running protest, injuring about 350 people.

Medics said around 50 people were shot and wounded with live fire, three of them critically, and 300 more treated for gas inhalation and other injuries along the Gaza side of the 25-mile (40-km) border fence, where Palestinians set up tent encampments on March 30 for what they call “The Great March of Return”.

A Palestinian protester is seen in front of a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

A Palestinian protester is seen in front of a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

Youths rolled burning tires to within 300 meters (yards) of the fence, trying to use the smoke as cover for throwing stones across it while eluding Israeli snipers. Army gunfire has killed at least 43 Palestinians on the frontier over the last month.

Protesters said they used slingshots to down two small Israeli observation drones. The army confirmed the drone losses.

Facing international censure over its use of live fire in the protests, Israel says it is protecting its border and takes such action only when protesters, some hurling firebombs and trying to plant explosives, approach too closely.

On Friday, troops faced “approximately 7,000 Palestinians participating in riots in five locations along the Gaza Strip border,” a military spokesman said, adding that one group had tried to breach the fence and enter Israeli territory.

As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Palestinians mourn what they call the “Nakba” (Catastrophe) of their people’s mass dispossession during the conflict that broke out in 1948.

Two-thirds of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are war refugees or their descendants. The protests have seen thousands gather – in greater numbers on Fridays – to demand access to their families’ lost homes or lands, now in Israel.

A demonstrator uses a racket to return tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A demonstrator uses a racket to return tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

“GIVE US A STATE”

Israel rules that out, concerned it would lose its Jewish majority. Alternatives, such as accommodating refugees and their descendants in a future Palestinian state, have been discussed in peace talks that date back to 1993 but which are now stalled.

“If it wasn’t for the occupation we would have lived as free as people like in other countries,” Ahmed, 24, said at a protest site east of Gaza City. “If they don’t allow us back, at least they should give us a state.”

Israel says the protests have been organized by Hamas – an Islamist group that controls Gaza and is sworn to Israel’s destruction – to provide cover for attacks, and that most of the dead were militants. Palestinians deny those allegations.

The protests take place at a time of growing frustration as prospects for an independent Palestinian state look poor. While the peace talks are stuck, Israel, which withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, has expanded its settlements in the occupied West Bank.

An added focus this year is President Donald Trump’s decision to begin moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Trump’s moves angered Palestinian leaders, who have refused to talk to his administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Israel’s government celebrated the U.S. decision, saying it recognized the “reality” that Jerusalem was the historic capital of the Jewish people.

Visiting the Middle East earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lent his support to Israel’s handling of the border protests. “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves,” he said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Heinrich)

Israeli troops kill four Palestinians in fourth week of protests

A demonstrator gestures as he hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

y Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinians and wounded 12 in renewed unrest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as a series of mass protests in the enclave reached its half-way mark.

Some Palestinians brought wire-cutters to cut through the border fence. As the crowd grew, Israeli soldiers called out warnings in Arabic over loudspeakers to individuals who approached the border fence.

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Despite the warnings, two Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian health officials said, bringing the death toll in the past few weeks of protests to at least 33. Several hundred people have also been wounded by Israeli sharpshooters.

Away from the border, Israeli-American Hollywood actress Natalie Portman announced she would not attend a ceremony in Israel to accept a million-dollar prize because of “distressing” events in the country.

The protests have been staged every Friday for the past month to push demands for Palestinian refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel. They are expected to culminate on May 15.

The Israeli military said that in the latest incident, about 3,000 Palestinians were rioting and tried to approach what it called security infrastructure. Troops responded “with riot dispersal means and are firing in accordance with the rules of engagement,” it said.

The use of live fire has drawn international criticism but Israel says it is protecting its borders and takes such action when protesters come too close to the border fence.

It accuses Hamas, the Islamist militant group which rules Gaza, of staging riots and trying to carry out attacks. Although the main protest campaign is intended to be peaceful, Gazans have hurled stones and burning tyres near the border fence.

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Some protesters on Friday fitted kites with cans of flammable liquids which they flew across the border to start fires in Israel.

“We aim to distract the soldiers from shooting and wounding or killing our people. Israeli soldiers will be worried those fire-kites may fall on their heads or torch bushes around them,” said Mohammad Abu Mustafa, 17, who lost his right leg a few months ago after being shot by an Israeli soldier.

“These kites also torch bushes and trees and not only cause them losses, but keep them busy trying to put out fires,” he said, leaning on crutches.

Early in the morning, the Israeli military used a new tactic, dropping leaflets into Gaza warning residents to not approach the border.

“The Hamas terror organization is taking advantage of you in order to carry out terror attacks. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is prepared for all scenarios. Stay away from the fence and do not attempt to harm it,” said the leaflets scattered by Israeli aircraft in areas along the border.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies this.

PACKED IN

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 recognize disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further fueled Palestinian anger.

In an apparent sign of concern over the bloodshed on the border, the actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, said she would not attend a prize ceremony in Israel.

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”.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing Angus MacSwan)

Israeli gunfire wounds 40 Palestinians in renewed Gaza border protest: medics

A Palestinian passes burning tires during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli forces shot and wounded at least 40 Palestinian protesters on Friday, Palestinian medics said, as thousands converged on Gaza’s border with Israel and set fire to mounds of tires to launch a second week of demonstrations.

Twenty Palestinians have died since the demonstrations near the heavily guarded Gaza border fence began on March 30, the latest a man who died in a Gaza hospital on Friday of gunshot wounds suffered on the first day of protests.

Five of Friday’s 40 wounded were in critical condition, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Palestinian tent encampments have sprung up a few hundred meters (yards) back from the 65-km (40-mile) frontier but groups of youths have ventured much closer, rolling tyres and throwing stones towards Israeli troops.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return to what is now Israel for refugees – and their descendants – from the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation. Refugees comprise most of the 2 million population of Israeli-blockaded Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant movement Hamas.

“I, like everyone around here, am coming to liberate their land,” Hekam Kuhail, 60, told Reuters, flashing a v-for-victory sign and having her photograph taken near the border.

With black tyre smoke and Israeli tear gas rising into the air, Palestinian youths used T-shirts, cheap medical masks and perfume to try and protect themselves. Israel was also trying to douse burning tyres with fire hoses from its side of the border.

The Israeli military has stationed sharpshooters on its side of the frontier to deter Palestinians from trying to break through the fence into Israeli territory. Many of those killed were militants, according to Israel.

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

CRITICISM OF SHOOTING AT DEMONSTRATORS

Seventeen of the 20 Palestinian dead were killed by Israeli gunfire on the first day of protests a week ago, medics said. The deaths drew international criticism of Israel’s response, which human rights groups said involved live fire against demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life.

The United Nations human rights office urged Israel to exercise restraint.

“We are saying that Israel has obligations to ensure that excessive force is not employed. And that if there is unjustified and unlawful recourse to firearms, resulting in death, that may amount to a wilful killing. And that’s a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell said in Geneva.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border and that its troops have been responding with riot dispersal means and fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

An Israeli military spokesman said on Friday that the army “will not allow any breach of the security infrastructure and fence, which protects Israeli civilians”.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem urged protesters to keep rallies peaceful. “Maintaining the peaceful nature of the protests will strike all fragile Zionist propaganda,” he said.

The Israeli government has ruled out any right of return for Palestinian refugees, fearing that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

The United States has criticised protest organisers. “We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters – including children – to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed,” President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said on Thursday.

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbours.

(Additional reporting by Eli Berlzon and Amir Cohen on the Gaza border, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Stephen Farrell and Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli fire kills Palestinian at Gaza border, with more frontier protests ahead

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fire killed a Palestinian at the Gaza border on Thursday and another died of wounds suffered several days ago, health officials said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead in a week of frontier protests and violence to 19.

The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted an armed militant near the security fence along the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians began a six-week-long protest last Friday in tent encampments along the fenced border of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million ruled by the militant Hamas Islamist group.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

The latest deaths are likely to add to international concerns over the violence, which human rights groups have said involved live fire against unarmed demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life. Israel says it is doing what is necessary to defend its border and prevent it from being breached.

Sixteen Palestinians died after being shot by Israeli troops on the first day of the protest, Palestinian medical officials said, and another was killed on Tuesday.

A 33-year-old man, hit by Israeli fire a few days ago near one of the tent cities, died on Thursday, the health officials said.

The military said that during the protests its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the border fence or rolling burning tyres and throwing rocks.

Some of the dead were identified by Palestinian militant groups as members.

LETHAL FORCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s deaths and appealed to those involved to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties or place civilians in harm’s way.

U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun, commenting on the violence, has said lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described most of those killed as “terrorists …active in the armed wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. The two groups advocate the destruction of Israel, which along with the West, regards them as terrorist organizations.

Many of the demonstrators who turned out for the start of the protest campaign returned to their homes and jobs over the week. But organizers expect large crowds again on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

Hamas announced on Thursday it would pay $3,000 to the family of anyone killed in the protests, $500 to Palestinians critically wounded and $200 to those who sustain more minor injuries.

Israeli leaders have said payments by Palestinian authorities to the families of militants killed or imprisoned by Israel encourages attacks on Israelis. Palestinians revere brethren killed in the conflict with Israel as martyrs.

Visiting the frontier this week, Lieberman warned protesters “against continuing the provocation and said that “every person who comes close to the fence is endangering their lives”.

Protesters have been stocking up on tyres and say they intend to burn thousands of them at the border and also use mirrors and lasers to distract Israeli sharpshooters across the frontier on Friday.

Speaking on Army Radio, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: “We are prepared for every scenario, even an attempt to cause sharpshooters to lose focus.”

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority.

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians are furious at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Its eastern half was taken by Israel in a 1967 war and is wanted by Palestinians for the capital of a future state.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. top court will not revive verdict against Palestinian Authority, PLO

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization gained a legal victory at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as the justices refused to consider reinstating a $655.5 million jury award won against them by 11 American families over militant attacks in Israel.

The court declined to hear the families’ appeal of a lower court’s 2016 ruling throwing out the jury award secured in a lawsuit brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, a law that lets American victims of international terrorism seek damages in U.S. courts.

The families had looked to hold the Palestinian Authority and PLO liable for six shootings and bombings between 2002 and 2004 in the Jerusalem area that killed 33 people, including several Americans, and wounded more than 450.

“It’s outrageous that the murderous Palestinian Authority is allowed to kill innocent civilians and not have to pay any cost. This is a horrible travesty of justice for the families and we will not let it stand,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, which represents the American families.

Gassan Baloul, a lawyer for the Palestinian defendants, said he was “gratified” that the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The ruling by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court that the high court left in place “respects the constitutional limits on the jurisdiction of U.S. courts,” Baloul added.

President Donald Trump’s administration had sided with the Palestinian Authority and PLO in the dispute, urging the justices not to take up the case because the specific claims could not be brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

“The United States condemns acts of terror in the strongest terms and the Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting those who commit terrorist attacks against innocent human beings to the fullest extent that the law allows,” U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

“We will continue to support wherever possible all lawful actions to fight terrorism and provide redress to the victims of terrorist attacks and their families,” Kupec added.

The attacks at the center of the lawsuit have been attributed to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas. Lead plaintiff Mark Sokolow, his wife and their two daughters were injured in a 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

JURISDICTION QUESTION

The 2nd Circuit ordered that the civil lawsuit, which began in January 2004, be dismissed. The appeals court said the attacks occurred “entirely outside” U.S. territory, and found no evidence that Americans were targeted. As a result, American courts do not have jurisdiction to hear the claims, it said.

The families said late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, and his agents routinely arranged for payments to attackers and to families of militants who died. The Palestinian Authority and PLO have said they condemned the attacks and blamed them on rogue individuals within the organizations acting on their own.

In 2015, after a six-week trial, a federal jury in Manhattan awarded the families $218.5 million, which was tripled automatically to $655.5 million under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the appeals court decision “eviscerates the Anti-Terrorism Act” by severely limiting what cases can be heard in U.S. courts. They argued that Congress wrote the law specifically to apply to attacks that took place outside the United States in which U.S. citizens were injured or killed, whether or not Americans were specifically targeted.

In a separate case on a similar theme, the Supreme Court in February blocked a group of Americans injured in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem from seizing ancient Persian artifacts from a Chicago museum to satisfy a $71.5 million court judgment against Iran, which they had accused of complicity in the attack.

The Supreme Court in another case is weighing whether Jordan-based Arab Bank Plc can be sued over legal claims that it helped finance militant attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Will Dunham)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)