Israeli warplanes strike Gaza after rockets fired toward Tel Aviv

Israeli soldiers are seen on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the border between Israel and Gaza on its Israeli side, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza early on Friday after Israel’s military said militants had fired two rockets toward the city of Tel Aviv.

The air strikes, the heaviest in five months, hit about 100 military targets belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, the military said. These included a rocket manufacturing site, a naval post and weapons facility, and a Hamas headquarters, it said.

Palestinian news media reported strikes throughout the densely populated coastal strip that is home to two million Palestinians. Four people were wounded, health ministry officials said.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of firing rockets from Gaza toward Tel Aviv – the first time the seaside city had been targeted since the 2014 Gaza War.

But Hamas denied responsibility and Israeli media, including Ha’aretz and Channel 7 News, later carried reports that the rockets might have been fired from Gaza by mistake.

A security official briefed on the situation, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters the launch was “the result of an error – that an attack on Israel was not intended. Israel holds Hamas responsible, hence the response”.

The exchange was the most serious since a botched Israeli commando incursion into Gaza last November.

In the aftermath of that episode, dozens of Israeli air strikes killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, and destroyed several buildings. Rocket attacks from Gaza sent residents of southern Israel to shelters, wounding dozens and killing a Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank.

SIRENS WAIL

The first rocket attack came on Thursday evening, with warning sirens sounding in the Tel Aviv area and residents hearing explosions.

The Israeli military said two longer-range rockets had been fired from Gaza but caused no casualties or damage. The Israelis retaliated in the early hours of Friday.

Just after dawn, six more missiles were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border towns but all but one were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the military said.

Calm was restored by mid-morning as an Egyptian delegation mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions, a Palestinian official said.

The incident immediately played into the campaign for an election in Israel on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his security credentials.

His right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, demanded that Israel resume its killings of Hamas chiefs.

“The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all,” he said on Thursday night.

Netanyahu also faced pressure from his center-left opponent, former General Benny Gantz, who said: “Only aggressive, harsh action will restore the deterrence that has eroded” under the prime minister’s watch.

Tensions have been high for the past year along the Israel-Gaza frontier, but on Friday morning Palestinian officials canceled the weekly border protests.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations that began a year ago and about 60 more have been killed in other incidents, including exchanges of fire across the border. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by Palestinian fire.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the packed, narrow enclave in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Frustration is growing in Gaza over the dim 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 West Bank have expanded.

The 2014 Gaza War was the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during that war, most of them civilians, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Two tales of a city: Jerusalem tour guided by a Palestinian and an Israeli

Tourists take part in the Dual Narrative tour lead by tour guides, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Lana Zilberman Soloway, a Jewish seminary student, stand next to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On a Jerusalem plaza looking up at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, a crowd gathers in front of two guides, listening attentively, a common sight in a city packed with pilgrims and tourists visiting its religious landmarks.

What is unusual is that one of the guides is Palestinian, one is Israeli, and they are taking turns to give their perspectives on the city known to Jews as Yerushalayim and to Arabs as al-Quds..

“We are in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish state. We are in one of the holiest places in the world for Christianity. And the keys are held by Muslim families,” said Israeli guide Lana Zilberman Soloway, who spoke first as the group reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is believed to be buried. “And all three coexist at the same time.”

Her counterpart, Noor Awad, from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank just a few km (miles) away, took a different view of the status quo, noting that Muslims and Christians from the West Bank or Gaza need Israeli travel permits to worship here.

“For Palestinians, this is the capital of Palestine and the capital of their country,” said Awad, 28. “If you don’t get that permission, you can’t come actually here to pray. So the place is being used, and plays a lot into the two narratives and the conflict we have today.”

The two guides heard each other out politely, with the occasional quip or raised eyebrow. Two dozen tourists, mainly foreigners living in the city, peppered them with questions.

The company, MEJDI Tours, says its “Dual Narrative” tour was “created in partnership by Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews”. The weekly tours have been underway since last October.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. The Old City and holy sites lie in the mainly Arab eastern half, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians say the eastern half is occupied land and must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the heart of Old City, the tour came to the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

“Where the Dome of the Rock today is standing, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to talk to God,” Awad told the tour party, describing what Muslims consider the holiest spot on earth outside of the two Arabian cities Muhammad called home.

“That’s a very central event, somehow similar to the story of Moses talking to God from Mount Sinai.”

For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temple, destroyed by Babylonian conquerors, rebuilt and razed again under the Romans. The Western Wall, a restraint for the foundations built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago, is a sacred place of prayer.

“All the way down deep underground, underneath the golden dome, 5779 years ago, God created the world. 4,000 years ago we believe Abraham came to bind Isaac on that exact spot,” Zilberman Soloway said.

Dave Yedid, 26, a Jewish seminary student from Long Island, New York who came on the tour, said: “exactly what differs in the sort of Jewish Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian narrative is something I’ll take home with me.”

“I wanted to see those two side by side.”

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)

Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli city draws Gaza air strikes

Israeli sappers work on a house that the Israeli military said was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Beersheba, southern Israel October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the largest city in southern Israel early on Wednesday, prompting Israeli air strikes that killed a militant in the Palestinian enclave.

Egypt, which sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday’s surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

The rocket hit a two-story house in Beersheba before dawn, the Israeli military said. It gutted most of the home, blowing out concrete walls and its stone facade, showering its yard and an adjacent street with rubble.

The family living there managed to take shelter in a reinforced room after alert sirens sounded, said officials in the city about 40 km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

Another rocket launched from Gaza and aimed at central Israel fell into the Mediterranean Sea, the military said.

After the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with his defense minister and top generals at military headquarters near the Gaza border, which has seen more than six months of sometimes violent Palestinian protests.

Netanyahu said that in a statement that unless attacks from Gaza ceased, “Israel will act with great force” to stop them.

With a nod to the Egyptian talks, Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and other major militant groups took the unusual step of denying responsibility for Wednesday’s launchings, saying they rejected “all irresponsible attempts to sabotage the Egyptian effort, including the firing of the rockets”.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any of the other smaller groups that operate in Gaza, and by mid-afternoon the area was quiet.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio there was evidence to back up the Hamas statement. But he said Israeli policy dictated an “immediate and forceful retaliation” against Hamas because the groups controls Gaza.

The European Union, in a statement from Brussels, said indiscriminate attacks against civilians were completely unacceptable and mortar and rocket fire by Palestinian militants must stop immediately.

EXPLOSIONS

Israel’s military said it struck armed training camps in Gaza and also targeted a squad about to launch a rocket.

Health officials in Gaza said a 25-year-old Palestinian man, identified by Al-Mujahedeen Brigades, a small militant faction, as one of its members, was killed. Five other Palestinians were wounded in separate attacks.

Many people in Gaza awoke to the sounds of explosions. Families crowded into a nearby hospital where the dead man’s mother collapsed over his body.

Pillars of smoke rose from the sites bombed by Israel, including a port Hamas is constructing in the southern Gaza Strip and a naval police position.

Cairo has been holding talks with Hamas on a truce with Israel and ways to end 11 years of division with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in the occupied West Bank. A Palestinian source said Egyptian officials in Gaza have been in touch with Israel to try to avoid further escalation.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the 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.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in JerusalemWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Trump says he wants two-state solution for Mideast conflict

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a bilateral meeting during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he wanted a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the clearest expression yet of his administration’s support for such an outcome.

The Trump administration has in the past said it would support a two-state solution if both sides agreed to it.

Trump, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, also said he wanted to unveil a peace plan in the next two to three months.

“I like a two-state solution. That’s what I think works best … That’s my feeling,” said Trump, who is attending the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders.

Netanyahu has said that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized and must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people – conditions that Palestinians say show he is not sincere about peacemaking.

The United States’ Arab allies are strong proponents of a two state solution.

“I really believe something will happen. They say it’s the toughest of all deals,” Trump said.

He added that Israel will have to do something good for the other side without elaborating.

Doubts have mounted over whether Trump’s administration can secure what he has called the “ultimate deal” since December, when the U.S. President recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moved the U.S. Embassy there.

“It is a dream of mine to get that done prior to the end of my first term,” Trump said of an agreement on the conflict.

“I don’t want to do it in my second term. We’ll do other things in my second term,” he said. “I think a lot of progress has been made. I think that Israel wants to do something and I think that the Palestinians actually want to do something.”

Jerusalem is one of the major issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides claim it as a capital. Trump’s move outraged the Palestinians, who have since boycotted Washington’s peace efforts, led by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally. It regards all of the city as its eternal and indivisible capital.

Asked what Israel might have to give up in return for the embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Trump replied: What will Israel have to give up after U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem? “I took probably the biggest chip off the table.

“And so obviously we have to make a fair deal, we have to do something. Deals have to be good for both parties … Israel got the first chip and it’s a big one.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Grant McCool)

Israeli joy, Palestinian fury over U.S. embassy launch in Jerusalem

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover 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 Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The crowd sported branded baseball caps and Israel’s prime minister wore red, white and blue as the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, delighting Israelis and deepening Palestinian anger.

“Our greatest hope is for peace,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a recorded video message, even as a spokesman for the Palestinian president accused him of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy on the status of the city.

The inauguration of the embassy, after Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “glorious day”.

Trump opted not to attend the ceremony in which a U.S. consular building was re-purposed into an embassy, pending the construction of a new facility, probably years away.

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, were there, seated next to Netanyahu opposite a stage with a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli flags. Two American pastors and a rabbi gave invocations.

Kushner, in a rare public speech, said the relocation from Tel Aviv, a diplomatically and politically sensitive step promised but never implemented by a succession of U.S. presidents, showed that Trump was a man of his word.

The comments were telling, just a week after Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that critics said weakened global trust in the United States.

GAZA VIOLENCE

“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” Kushner said, a reference to a campaign pledge to open a Jerusalem embassy. “Today also demonstrates American leadership. By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.”

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

The crowd, many wearing the caps marked “U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem, Israel” rose for numerous standing ovations. Attendants handed out pretzels and mineral water.

A smiling Netanyahu, decked out in U.S. colours – a blue suit, white shirt and red tie – showered praise on Trump, a president with whom he is in lockstep on many regional issues.

Thanking Trump for “having the courage” to move the embassy, Netanyahu said: “This is a great day. A great day for Jerusalem. A great day for the state of Israel. A day that will be engraved in our national memory for generations.”

Split screens on Israeli television stations showed a more complex story.

As coverage of the embassy ceremony ran on one side of the screen, the other broadcast the violence along Israel’s border with Gaza, where dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Amid expressions of international concern and condemnation over the use of live ammunition, Israel said it was taking the necessary measures to prevent any breach of its border fence with the enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.

Kushner, echoing the Netanyahu government’s position that the six weeks of Gaza protests were being orchestrated by Hamas Islamists opposed to Israel’s existence, said: “Even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Britain says Abbas Holocaust remarks ‘deeply concerning’

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank May 1, 2018. Picture taken May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain said on Thursday that recent remarks by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the Holocaust were “deeply concerning” and unhelpful to peace in the region.

Israel has accused Abbas of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial after the Palestinian leader suggested in a speech that historic persecution of European Jews had been caused by their conduct.

“Palestinian President Abbas’s comments at the Palestinian National Congress were deeply concerning. Any attempt to justify or explain away any element of the Holocaust is unacceptable,” Britain’s Middle-East minister Alistair Burt said in a statement.

“President Abbas has shown a commitment to non-violence and a two-state solution. But his recent rhetoric does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people and is deeply unhelpful to the cause of peace.”

(Reporting by William James, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

Pompeo says U.S. open to ‘two-party solution’ for Israeli-Palestinian conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan April 30, 2018. Khalil Mazraawi/Pool via Reuters

By Lesley Wroughton

AMMAN (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested on Monday he was open to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, saying a “two-party solution” was likely in his first extensive comments on peace efforts since taking the job last week.

“With respect to the two-state solution, the parties will ultimately make the decision. We are certainly open to a two-party solution as a likely outcome,” he said at a news conference in Jordan after a visit to Israel.

“The Israelis and Palestinians need to have political engagement. We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue,” he added.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he would support a two-state solution if the two sides agree. The White House is preparing a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Palestinians have rejected U.S. peace-making efforts since Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy to the city, wanted by Palestinians as capital of their own state.

Amman was Pompeo’s last stop before he returns to Washington DC, where he has not yet entered the State Department. Moments after being sworn in as Secretary of State on Thursday, Pompeo immediately left for a meeting in Brussels, followed by a visit to allies in the Middle East.

“(The Mideast peace) is an incredible priority for the United States to provide whatever assistance we can to allow the two parties to come to a resolution on this incredibly long standing and important conflict,” Pompeo said, standing alongside Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

Pompeo also made his first comments on the violence along the Israel-Gaza Strip border, where Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians in two separate incidents on Sunday after a month of Palestinian protests.

“We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves,” he said.

Turning to Syria, he said the United States was “in perfect accord” with Jordan on Syria, including the preservation of a “de-escalation zone” in the south.

Pompeo said: “We believe there are many countries, including the United States, who will play an important political role in achieving the de-escalation and ultimate political resolution in Syria”.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Suleiman al-Khalidi, Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Seminary head arrested after Israeli teenage deaths in flood: police

Israeli rescue services personnel operate near the site where a group of Israeli youths was swept away by a flash flood, near the Zafit river bed, south to the Dead Sea, Israel, April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The head of a seminary who organized a desert trek in which 10 Israeli teenagers were killed in a flash flood has been arrested on suspicion of causing death through negligence, police said.

Nine girls and a boy were killed when a sudden, powerful torrent gushed through a usually arid Zafit river bed in southern Israel near the Dead Sea on Thursday. Seven of the 10 were buried on Friday.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the head of the seminary and a teacher were remanded in custody until Tuesday on suspicion of causing death through negligence.

It was the deadliest incident of several caused by unusually heavy rains over two days, which caused many normally dry river beds to swell into potentially deadly torrents.

The floods also claimed the lives of two children from Israel’s Bedouin community who were washed away in separate torrents on Wednesday.

A Palestinian teenage girl drowned in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, medics said. A truck driver is still missing after he was apparently swept away in another torrent in Israel, south of the Dead Sea, police said.

Flash floods are a common phenomenon in Israel and the West Bank after heavy rains, as surges of water run through narrow channels into the Dead Sea and the rift valley region that runs along the Negev Desert.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying: “All of Israel laments in the terrible tragedy that cut short the lives of ten young, wonderful people who had such promising futures.”

A text message conversation published by Israeli media quoted one of the trek’s participants, who was unnamed, saying: “I can’t believe that I am actually going out in this weather, it’s not logical that we should go to such a place where there will be floods, it’s tempting fate, we will die, I am serious.”

Another conversation participant thought her friend’s comments were exaggerated; she presumed the organizers “have some sense and will take you to other places.”

A small section of Israel’s concrete separation wall in East Jerusalem that was built to seal off Palestinian areas collapsed due to the heavy rainfall but construction teams were on site to seal the breach, police said.

Fearing more heavy thunder storms on Friday, police closed some main roads in the Dead Sea region and warned torrent hunters seeking views of spectacular waterfalls and gushing streams to stay away.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by Stephen Farrell and William Maclean)

Israeli forces wound 30 more Palestinians in Gaza-Israel border protests

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an axe during clashes with Israeli troops, during a tent city protest along the Israel border with Gaza, demanding the right to return to their homeland, the southern Gaza Strip March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded 30 Palestinians during a large protest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday in which demonstrators hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, Palestinian medics said.

Some in the Gaza crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device, according to the Israeli military.

Thousands of Palestinians arrived at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 30 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and “responding with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence, and deployed army sharpshooters along it.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

In recent days the Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

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

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)