Gaza ceasefire ends flare-up, Palestinians resume protests

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

GAZA (Reuters) – An Egyptian-brokered truce ended a two-day wave of rocket barrages and air strikes between Israel and Gaza, but the border remained tense as thousands of Gazans gathered for protests in which two Palestinians were killed and scores wounded.

After a quiet night with no rockets falling in Israel or air strikes in Gaza, residents in southern Israel, who had spent much of the past two days in rocket shelters, were told by the military they could return to their daily routines.

In Gaza, crowds of Palestinians resumed protests against Israel. Reuters TV footage showed plumes of smoke blackening the sky at one area of the border after Palestinians set tires ablaze, and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded about 240 others, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israeli military said rioters hurled stones, explosives, and firebombs at troops and the border fence. The soldiers “responded with riot dispersal means and live fire, in accordance with the standard operating procedures”, a spokeswoman said.

A tank also fired at a Hamas outpost, the military said.

Since the weekly protests began on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 159 Palestinians and a Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Still, the broader truce held on Friday after a two-day escalation during which the Hamas militant group fired scores of rockets, including a long-range missile deep into Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza.

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child were killed in the Israeli attacks, as was a Hamas militant. Seven people were wounded by Palestinian rockets and mortars that struck Israel.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a blockade on Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is home to two million Palestinians, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

A senior Egyptian official said Cairo was working to secure a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Hamas, beginning with a ceasefire and later including economic improvements.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch and Cairo newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

Gaza ceasefire largely holding after day-long flareup

A Palestinian woman passes a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire largely held on Sunday along a tense Gaza-Israel border on Sunday following a day of fierce fighting, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defenses in case hostilities resume.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Saturday, killing two teenage boys, and militants fired more than 100 rockets across the border, wounding three people in a southern Israeli town.

The ceasefire, the second between Israel and Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists to be brokered by Egypt this year after a previous day-long flare-up in May, came into force late on Saturday.

“Everyone understands that unless the situation is defused, we will very quickly be back to another confrontation,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov told reporters at his office in Gaza.

Israel’s military said that, after assessing the situation, it was reinforcing its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries in the greater Tel Aviv area and in the south, where thousands of residents spent much of the Jewish Sabbath in shelters.

It also called up a limited amount of reservists to help out its aerial defense command.

Israel said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire militants had fired two rockets across the border, of which one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza.

Later, two mortar bombs were fired towards Israel, which responded by striking the launch tube, the military said.

TENSIONS

Weekly clashes at the Israel-Gaza border have kept tensions at a high for months. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the frontier held every week since March, including a teenager on Friday, Gaza medics said. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the demonstrations, dubbed The Great March of Return, to provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

“Our policy is clear – we hit with great might anyone who harms us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I hope that they (Hamas) have gotten the message. If not, they will yet.”

Netanyahu also instructed the military to keep targeting Palestinian squads that launch incendiary helium balloons and kites into Israeli fields from northern Gaza. Israel’s military fired twice on such groups, wounding three people.

Israel says it has lost at least 7,000 acres (2,830 hectares) of farmland and forests to a recent surge in fires started by Gaza militants using such balloons and kites rigged with flammable material.

Hamas said border demonstrations, at which Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to land lost when Israel was created in 1948, would continue and that the onus was on Israel to show restraint.

“Let the enemy end its aggression first and then the resistance will stop,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a eulogy for Amir al-Namara, 15, and Loay Kheil, 16, who were killed when a half-constructed high rise they were playing in was hit by an Israeli missile.

The Israeli military said the building had been used by Hamas for urban warfare training.

Twelve others, passers-by and visitors of a nearby public garden, were wounded in the attack, one of dozens of Israeli air strikes on the densely populated enclave on Saturday which damaged residential and office buildings, shattered car windows and caused panic among residents.

“He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was just an innocent kid,” said Amir’s grandfather Waleed al-Namara at the boy’s wake. “We want the calm to last, and for them to agree on a solution that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

The surge in violence comes as Palestinian hopes for an independent state have dwindled and peace talks remain stalled. Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of whom depend on foreign aid, has been under Israeli economic sanctions for 12 years.

Separately, a Fatah faction militant and his son were killed in a blast in a building in Gaza on Sunday. Police said the man accidentally set off an old Israeli shell he was trying to dismantle.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)

Palestinians and Israelis remember life under British rule

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship "Exodus" in Haifa port in this March 22, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Frank Shershel/Handout via REUTERS

By Maayan Lubell and Rinat Harash

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prince William’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories is the first official visit by a member of the royal family, but the Holy Land is familiar ground to the British state.

An older generation of Israelis and Palestinians can still remember British soldiers patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah during the three decades that Britain controlled the territory.

British troops captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire in 1917, and in 1922 the League of Nations awarded Britain an international mandate to administer Palestine during the post-war deal-making that redrew the map of the Middle East.

The award of the mandate also endorsed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain expressed support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

In 1948, exhausted by World War Two and the strain of holding warring Jewish and Arab forces apart, the British withdrew.

Seventy years later, Israelis and Palestinians who lived through the era remember it very differently.

‘I DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT’

Under the British, the early Zionist movement was able to lay the groundwork for what would become modern Israel. Its parliament, laws and military bear traces of British influence, as do many buildings and street names.

But Israelis also remember how Britain restricted the number of Jews fleeing to Palestine from Nazi-controlled Europe. Tens of thousands who tried to enter illegally by sea were taken to detention camps in Cyprus and Palestine.

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship "Exodus" in Haifa port in this July 18, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hans Pinn/Handout via REUTERS

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship “Exodus” in Haifa port in this July 18, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hans Pinn/Handout via REUTERS

“We loved the British, but their policy, when it was against us, sparked anger and rage that are understandable,” said Shlomo Hillel, 95, a former Israeli diplomat and minister.

Hillel’s late wife, Suzanna, fled Austria when the Nazis annexed it in 1938. After a year at sea she was taken with her family to a British detention camp in Palestine, where they were held for another year.

“Until this day, I do not understand it,” Hillel said.

WARM BEER

Hillel went on to operate a secret underground munitions factory beneath a kibbutz near Tel Aviv that had been set up as a cover for their clandestine bullet-making operations.

British soldiers would occasionally drop by at the kibbutz for routine visits. He hosted them with beer and sandwiches, but to avoid future surprise visits he served them undrinkably warm beer one summer day, telling them that if they gave him advance notice, “I can prepare the beer and keep it in the fridge.” After that, he always knew when the British were coming.

MIXED FEELINGS

Ram Haviv, 93, a retired Israeli senior civil servant, served in the British Army in Iraq, Egypt and Iran in World War Two.

“The relationship wasn’t too favorable on the part of the British government of that time. But we’d rather now remember the positive aspects for which we are just the same thankful,” he said.

“After the Second World War, the state of Israel was founded on the cornerstones of the British rule in Palestine.”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

KING DAVID HOTEL

The King David Hotel, where Prince William will stay in Jerusalem, was built in the 1930s by Ezra Mosseri, a wealthy Egyptian Jewish banker.

Used by the British in the mandate era as a headquarters, in July 1946 it was bombed by the Irgun, an underground Jewish paramilitary force, killing more than 90 people.

FILE PHOTO: Rescue workers are seen at the site of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem which has served as the British headquarters, and was bombed by Jewish Irgun paramilitary group killing more than 90 people, in this July 22, 1946 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hugo Mendelson/Handout via REUTERS/File Pho

FILE PHOTO: Rescue workers are seen at the site of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem which has served as the British headquarters, and was bombed by Jewish Irgun paramilitary group killing more than 90 people, in this July 22, 1946 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hugo Mendelson/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Mohammad Jadallah, 97, still remembers that day, when he had just turned up for his job as a waiter. The explosion “cut the room in half,” he recalls. “There was a state of panic. People were running in the dining room and in other places in the hotel.”

Less than two years later, Jadallah was no longer serving the British at tables – he was fighting on the Arab side in the war that broke out as the British era limped to a close.

‘BRITAIN GAVE OUR LAND TO THE JEWS’

Sitting under an apple tree in Dar Jarir village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Abdel-Fattah Shijaiyah mostly remembers the British as an unwelcome military presence who imprisoned his father and issued a death warrant on his brother for their involvement in an Arab uprising in the 1930s.

Shijaiyah, 96, had joined the police under the British “because of the state of poverty: there was no money and my father was in jail”.

His brother was never caught and was later pardoned. Shijaiyah himself later took up arms in the 1940s, as Arab feelings hardened against the British and the growing numbers of Jewish immigrants.

“We are convinced Britain gave our land to the Jews,” he said.

FOR THE TIME BEING

In dusty archives in Gaza, old British land records are still in use. The yellowing pages are stamped with the mandate-era name “Palestine Government”. The listed proprietor for some districts is recorded as “the High Commissioner, for the time being, in trust for the Government of Palestine”.

In Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Jarghoun, 75, displayed a document for a piece of land that, he says, his father bought and registered with the British authorities in 1944. The land lies on the other side of the Gaza-Israel border, in what is now the Israeli city of Lod.

“I want my land back,” he said. “We, as Palestinians, want our country back. Balfour gave what he did not own to those who were undeserving.”

(Reporting by Rinat Harash, Mustafa Abu-Ganeyeh, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ali Sawafta, Ori Lewis and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)

Militants’ rockets, Israeli air strikes heat up Gaza border

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ori Lewis

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Several dozen rockets and mortar bombs launched at Israel by Palestinians in Gaza, and Israeli air strikes on the enclave’s dominant Hamas militant group, raised the heat along the border on Wednesday.

Despite the biggest flare-up in weeks in the area, no deaths were reported. But pledges by Israel and Palestinian militants to continue to respond to any attacks against them held the potential for broader conflict.

“I don’t intend to detail the actions we plan on Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech to graduating military officers that was aired on national radio.

He added: “Force will be stepped up as much as required. We are prepared for every eventuality, and our enemies would do well to understand that – right now.”

The Israeli military said Hamas fired about 45 rockets and mortar bombs at southern Israel overnight, and that Israeli aircraft attacked 25 targets belonging to the group in response.

A graphic distributed by the military showed 21 impact sites in Israeli territory and it released a photo of one crater just outside a school. It said seven projectiles were intercepted, at least three fell short inside Gaza and that it was not immediately able to account for the others.

A Hamas spokesman said that, as part of a policy of “bombardment for bombardment”, the barrages were retaliation for an earlier Israeli air strike.

The Israeli military said that in that raid, it attacked three targets in a Hamas compound, calling it a response to the repeated launching of incendiary kites that have burned large tracts of parched farm fields and woodland in southern Israel.

Two Hamas security men were lightly hurt in one of the air raids, residents said. Sirens sounded throughout the night in parts of Israel’s south, sending residents into fortified rooms that are mandatory in homes.

No Israeli casualties were reported.

Israel has accused Hamas of stoking violence in an attempt to deflect domestic opinion from Gaza’s energy shortages and faltering economy.

Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza and tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods at its land borders. Egypt has also kept its own Gaza frontier largely closed. Both countries cite security concerns for the measures, which have deepened economic hardship.

At least 127 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during mass demonstrations along the Gaza border since March 30.

Protesters are demanding a right of return to what is now Israel for those who fled or were forced to flee their homes in the war around its creation in 1948, and for millions of their descendants. Israel rules that out as demographic suicide.

Israel’s deadly tactics in confronting the weekly Friday protests have drawn international condemnation. But support has come from its main ally, the United States, which like Israel, has cast blame on Hamas.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli gunfire, tear gas injure 100 as Gaza protest resumes

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest marking al-Quds Day, (Jerusalem Day), at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops fired tear gas and live bullets at Palestinians taking part in weekly protests at the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday, injuring at least 100 people, medics said.

The army said it was taking action to disperse thousands of Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks the troops and burned tyres, and prevent any breach of the fortified frontier fence.

Israeli forces have killed at last 120 Palestinians in protests along the border since a campaign was launched on March 30 to demand the right to return to ancestral lands that are now part of Israel, hospital officials say. Israel says the dead included Hamas and other militants who used civilians as cover for infiltration attempts.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after Egypt brokers ceasefire

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Wednesday under an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire after the most intense flareup of hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel since a 2014 war.

Militants from Hamas, the dominant group in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets and mortar bombs at Israel throughout Tuesday and overnight, to which Israel responded with tank and air strikes on more than 50 targets in the enclave.

There were no reports of further fighting after Palestinian and Israeli attacks in the early hours of Wednesday, and both sides appeared to back away from a slide toward a new war after weeks of violence along the border.

Schools opened as usual in Israeli towns near the frontier where rocket warning sirens sounded frequently on Tuesday. Gaza’s streets were filled with morning shoppers and children went to class.

A Palestinian official said Egyptian mediation led to a ceasefire, but the terms of the “understanding” did not go beyond “a restoration of calm by both sides”.

“After the resistance succeeded in confronting the (Israeli) aggression … there was a lot of mediation in the past hours,” Hamas’ deputy chief in Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, said, in a nod to Egypt’s efforts.

“An agreement was reached to return to the (2014) ceasefire understandings in the Gaza Strip. The resistance factions will abide by it as long as the Occupation does the same,” Hayya said in a statement, using militant groups’ term for Israel.

Israel stopped short of officially confirming any formal truce with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it regards along with the West as terrorist organizations.

But it launched no new attacks on Wednesday and signaled it was prepared to halt the hostilities if the cross-border barrages ended. Israeli officials declared that militants had been dealt a strong blow.

The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded by projectiles launched from Gaza. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli strikes.

“Firing has stopped since the morning and Israel conveyed a message that if it resumes, the attacks on Hamas and its associates will be even stronger,” a senior Israeli official added.

“It all depends on Hamas,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said on Israel Radio.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab, acknowledging a ceasefire was in effect, said its success would depend on “whether Israel will refrain from any military escalation against Gaza”.

Both Hamas and pro-Iran Islamic Jihad said they fired their salvoes in response to Israel’s killing of at least 116 Palestinians since March 30 in Gaza border protests.

Islamic Jihad had vowed revenge in response to Israeli tank shelling that killed of three of its men on Sunday after explosives were planted along the Gaza frontier fence.

AIR STRIKES

Violence along the Gaza frontier soared in recent weeks. At least 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations along the border, drawing international condemnation for Israel over its use of lethal force.

The demonstrations and surge in violence come amid growing frustration among Palestinians over the prospects for an independent state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

By late Tuesday, Israeli aircraft had hit 55 facilities belonging to militant groups in Gaza, including a cross-border tunnel under construction, in response to the Palestinian barrages, the military said.

Such potential targets are usually abandoned by militants when violence with Israel flares.

Israel said some 70 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza at its southland. Some were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten before it was due to open.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Gaza militants launch barrages across border, Israel hits back with air strikes

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Palestinian militants on Tuesday launched their heaviest barrages against Israel since the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli aircraft struck back in a surge of fighting after weeks of border violence.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from either side after the Israeli military said more than 25 mortar bombs and rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip in several salvoes in the morning and afternoon.

Israeli planes attacked at least seven facilities belonging to armed group Islamic Jihad and the territory’s dominant Hamas movement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “powerful” response.

The Israeli military said several of the projectiles fired from Gaza were shot down by its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten, damaging its walls and scattering the playground with debris and shrapnel, about an hour before it was scheduled to open for the day.

There was no claim of responsibility from any of the militant groups in Gaza, but the attack comes after Islamic Jihad vowed to take revenge after three of its members were killed by Israeli tank shelling.

Violence has soared along the Gaza frontier in recent weeks during which 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations for a right of return to ancestral lands now in Israel.

A Hamas spokesman defended Tuesday’s attacks as a “natural response to Israeli crimes”. In similarly phrased remarks, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said “the blood of our people is not cheap”.

Gaza residents said at least seven training or security facilities belonging to Islamic Jihad and Hamas were hit in the Israeli air strikes.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the target sites. The powerful explosions shook buildings nearby, causing panic among rush hour crowds on streets and in markets. The Gazan Ministry of Education said shrapnel from one missile flew into a school.

The Israeli military said it was “carrying out activities in the Gaza Strip”, without elaborating.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was deeply concerned by “the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza towards communities in southern Israel”.

Calling for restraint by all parties, he said at least one of the mortar bombs “hit in the immediate vicinity of a kindergarten and could have killed or injured children”.

Amid international condemnation for its use of lethal force at the mass demonstrations, Israel said many of the dead were militants and that the army was repelling attacks on the border fence. Palestinians and their supporters say most of the protesters were unarmed civilians and Israel was using excessive force against them.

BLOCKADE CHALLENGE

Organizers of the Palestinian border protests launched a boat from Gaza on Tuesday in a challenge to Israel’s maritime blockade of the enclave.

“I want to make a future for myself, I want to live,” said Ehab Abu Armana, 28, before he and 14 other protesters boarded the boat. The Israeli navy was widely expected to stop the vessel, which the organizers said would be accompanied for a short distance by several other boats.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014 and Israeli settlements built on occupied territory which Palestinians seek for a state have expanded.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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)