Arab League head warns no Mideast peace deal without Palestinian state

FILE PHOTO - Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends the Arab League's foreign ministers meeting to discuss unannounced U.S. blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Cairo, Egypt April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – The head of the Arab League warned on Monday that attempts to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be in vain without the establishment of a Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s comments appeared directed at a still unpublished peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump has dubbed the “deal of the century”. As part of the plan, a U.S.-led conference will be held next week in Bahrain on proposals for the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinian leadership is boycotting the conference, saying Trump’s peace plan is likely to be heavily weighted in favor of Israel and to quash their aspirations for statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While the precise outlines of the draft plan have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed on it say it jettisons the two-state solution.

“Whatever is rejected by the Palestinian or the Arab side is unacceptable,” Aboul Gheit said during an event at the Arab League.

“What is acceptable from our side as Arabs as a solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital,” he added.

Based in Egypt, the Arab League is often seen as a talking shop rendered ineffective by regional rivalries, but it remains the main forum for Arab opinion on international matters.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are its most influential members.

Aboul Gheit said that Israel’s acceptance of an Arab Peace Initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which offers Israel normal ties in return for withdrawal from territory captured in 1967, was the only acceptable solution for Arab states.

“If (Israel) chooses the only reasonable and accepted way from our side as Arabs, which is the establishment of a Palestinian state … it will be accepted in the region as a normal regional partner,” he said.

Last week, a White House official said Egypt, Jordan and Morocco planned to attend the Bahrain conference.

Palestinians urged Egypt and Jordan to reconsider their attendance at the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain, voicing concern it would weaken any Arab opposition to Washington’s coming peace plan.

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Tolba, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Toby Chopra)

Netanyahu hours away from deadline for forming coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had until late Wednesday to form a new ruling coalition with a recalcitrant ally or face the possible end of a decade of combative leadership of Israel.

As the hours ticked by, there was no sign of a breakthrough in talks with far-right former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Parliament began a full-day debate on a motion to dissolve itself and call a new election if no deal is struck.

Political sources said Netanyahu was seeking agreement with the leaders of parties in the legislature for a mid-September election day.

Netanyahu had declared himself the winner of a national ballot last month, but he now has until midnight (2100 GMT) to tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he has put together an administration, and his political future hangs in the balance.

Failure to forge a coalition would take the task out of the 69-year-old Netanyahu’s hands, with Rivlin asking another legislator, either from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party or from the opposition, to try.

That presidential move, which would sideline Netanyahu, can be avoided with a coalition agreement deal or if parliament approves an election.

Political commentator Chemi Shalev, writing in the left-wing Haaretz daily, said a last-minute agreement was still possible and Netanyahu would still be the favorite to win a new poll.

But he said Netanyahu’s critics now find themselves fantasizing about a world without him.

“It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Young Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known,” Shalev wrote.

Lieberman has stuck to his guns in a battle with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of Netanyahu’s current interim government, to limit traditional military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Without the support of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu cannot put together a majority government of right-wing and religious factions led by Likud.

Political commentators said that as the prospects dimmed for a compromise with Lieberman, Netanyahu would focus his efforts on enlisting the 61 votes needed in parliament to approve a new election.

The brinkmanship six weeks after the closely contested April ballot poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule and deepens political uncertainty in a country riven with division.

PEACE PLAN

A new election could also complicate U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even before it has been announced Palestinians have rejected it as a blow to their aspirations for statehood.

The White House team behind the proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for an economic “workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The group is due in Israel on Thursday.

Lieberman said on Wednesday he was not backing down in what he termed a matter of principle over the conscription issue, and he denied Likud allegations his real intention was to oust Netanyahu and lead a “national camp”.

“I am not a vengeful man and I don’t hold a grudge,” said Lieberman, who last year resigned as defense chief in a dispute with Netanyahu over policy toward Gaza.

Despite looming indictments in three corruption cases,

Netanyahu had appeared to be on course for a fifth term as head of a right-wing bloc after he squeezed past centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Public attention had been focused less on coalition-building and more on moves Netanyahu loyalists were planning in parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and is due to argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against the attorney-general’s intention, announced in February, to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to encourage investment in Palestinian areas as first part of peace plan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel back to Washington, DC at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York, U.S., May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will unveil the first part of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan when it holds an international conference in Bahrain in late June to encourage investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, senior U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The “economic workshop” will bring together government officials and business leaders in an effort to jump-start the economic portion of the peace initiative, which is also expected to include proposals for resolving thorny political issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the officials said.

Trump has touted the coming plan as the “deal of the century,” but Palestinian officials have rebuked the U.S. effort, which they believe will be heavily biased in favor of Israel.

Trump’s Middle East team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and regional envoy Jason Greenblatt, appears intent on focusing initially on potential economic benefits, despite deep skepticism among experts that they can succeed where decades of U.S.-backed efforts have failed.

“We think this is an opportunity to take the economic plan that we’ve worked on for a long time now and present it in the region,” a senior Trump administration official said.

The participants in the June 25-26 conference in Manama, the first phase of the peace plan’s rollout, are expected to include representatives and business executives from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including some finance ministers, the administration official said.

A second U.S. official declined to say whether Israeli and Palestinian officials were likely to take part.

“Our position is clear: we will neither participate in the economic segment nor in the political segment of this deal,” said PLO senior official Wasel Abu Youssef.

The Palestinian Authority has boycotted the U.S. peace effort since late 2017 when Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of U.S. policy.

But the senior U.S. official said several Palestinian business leaders “have shown a lot of interest” in the conference.

A spokesman for Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said: “We have not yet received an invitation.”

INVESTMENT IN GAZA?

U.S. officials had said earlier the peace plan would be rolled out after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in early June. But the announcement of the investors’ workshop appears to set the stage for a sequenced release of the plan, starting with the economic plan, and later, at some time not yet clear, the political proposals.

The senior U.S. official said the conference would show the people of Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, that “there are donor countries around the world willing to come in and make investments.”

The Trump administration has sought to enlist support from Arab governments. The plan is likely to call for billions of dollars in financial backing for the Palestinians, mostly from oil-rich Gulf states, according to people informed about the discussions.

Saudi Arabia has assured Arab allies it would not endorse any U.S. plan that fails to meet key Palestinian concerns.

Though the plan’s authors insist the exact contents are known only to a handful of insiders, Trump’s aides have disclosed it will address the major political issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

They have said they expect Israelis and Palestinians will both be critical of some of the proposals.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a recent meeting at the United Nations attended by Greenblatt that the United States seemed to be crafting a plan for a Palestinian surrender to Israel and insisted “there’s no amount of money that can make it acceptable.”

Chief among the Palestinians’ concerns is whether the plan will meet their core demand of calling for them to have an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territory Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Kushner has declined to say whether the plan includes a two-state solution, a central goal of other recent peace efforts that is widely endorsed internationally.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Palestinians injured in protests at Gaza border ahead of anniversary rally

A Palestinian protester returns a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during clashes in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded seven Palestinians on the Gaza border on Friday, Gaza medical officials said, the day before a mass rally called to mark the first anniversary of weekly protests in which around 200 Palestinians have been killed.

Despite a decision by Gaza protest organizers not to hold a big demonstration on Friday some Palestinians turned out, although in smaller numbers than usual. Humanitarian officials urged restraint for Saturday’s anniversary to avoid any further bloodshed.

Palestinian sit near to the Israeli-Gaza border fence, ahead of the first anniversary of border protests, east of Gaza City March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The Israeli military said its troops faced around 800 demonstrators along the fortified frontier on Friday and that they had used riot dispersal measures to defend the border.

There were also sporadic clashes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian youths threw petrol bombs in Hebron, and 150 demonstrators hurled stones at Israeli troops, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Palestinians warm to Netanyahu rival, citing signs of compromise

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and head of Israel Resilience party, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell and Dan Williams

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinians warmed on Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival, a former top general who said Israel should not maintain its dominion over them.

With both a general election and the unveiling of a U.S. peace initiative on the horizon, the centrist candidate, Benny Gantz, has been signaling an openness to territorial compromise in the occupied West Bank. That marks a contrast with the right-wing Netanyahu, who has ruled out withdrawing settlements.

The secret U.S. proposal for breaking a five-year diplomatic deadlock is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9 ballot. Pollsters see Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party winning around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term.

In an interview on Wednesday with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Gantz was asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people,” Gantz said.

Gantz, whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Netanyahu’s Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, has said he wanted to strengthen settlement blocs in the West Bank.

But he has not mentioned what might happen in any future peace deal to isolated settlements that are not incorporated into Israel if Palestinians are given a separate state.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, praised “the signs coming from Gantz about settlements”, calling them a step in the right direction should he win the election and prove “willing and ready” for peace.

“It’s encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Abu Rudeineh told Reuters.

Most world powers consider Israeli settlements on land captured in a 1967 war to be illegal under the Geneva conventions. Israel disputes this, citing historical ties to the land, and has expanded the settlement population steadily, including during the past decade under Netanyahu.

Palestinians say settlements must be removed from their future state in any final agreement, although some could be ceded to Israel as part of an agreed swap for other land. The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements, and Abbas is boycotting the Trump administration, accusing it of being biased toward Israel.

In a statement, Likud said Gantz was planning to form a “leftist government” sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Gantz’ Resilience party said “no unilateral decision will be made on settlement evacuation” and that he would “maintain … non-negotiable security protections”.

Netanyahu cites the example of Gaza — where Israel unilaterally pulled out its settlements in 2005 and the Islamist group Hamas soon took control — as proof that removing settlements from the West Bank would be dangerous.

Gantz described the Gaza withdrawal as well executed, telling Yedioth: “We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere.”

The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both may need to compromise.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel forces evict Israeli settlers in West Bank land dispute case

A protestor prays before Israeli security forces come to evacuate 15 Jewish settler families from the illegal outpost of Netiv Ha'avot in the Israeli occupied West Bank. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dedi Hayun

NETIV HA’AVOT, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli security forces on Tuesday began evicting Jewish settlers from 15 homes which Israel’s highest court ruled were built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Under a Supreme Court order, the 15 dwellings are to be demolished within the next few days. Hundreds of young pro-settlement activists gathered on Tuesday in several of the homes slated for demolition. Some of the protesters climbed onto the roof of one dwelling and hoisted Israeli flags.

A few scuffles ensued with police but for the most part, demonstrators offered passive resistance and were carried away by officers who grabbed hold of their arms and legs. In one home, an Israeli policeman hugged a weeping man as he escorted him out.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and other land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes this, and there are now about 500,000 Israeli settlers living among some 2.6 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The entire Netiv Ha’avot settlement was built without official Israeli authorization, but the government has retroactively agreed to allow the rest of the community to stay once the 15 homes built on private Palestinian land come down.

“People are being torn from their houses and families are sad,” said Elazar Herz Van Spiegel, 45, a Netiv Ha’avot settler, whose home was not one of those due to be demolished. “But … we are very optimistic about the future.”

Palestinians dismissed the dismantling of a small number of homes as an empty gesture.

Wassel Abu Youssef, a Palestine Liberation Organization official said: “All settlement is illegal and must be removed. Israel is trying to fool world public opinion by removing some homes here and there while it continues to build settlements.”

The Israeli government has announced a plan to pay compensation to the families whose homes are to be razed and rehouse them on adjacent tracts not owned by individual Palestinians.

The remainder of Netiv Ha’avot, where some 20 houses stand on land not covered by the court ruling, is to be granted legal status and designated a neighborhood of an Israeli government-recognized settlement, Elazar, the cabinet decided in February.

Israeli authorities have carried out similar evictions in the past under court order. In February 2017, some 300 settlers were removed from the unauthorized outpost of Amona in the West Bank.

But settlement expansion, which has drawn Palestinian and international condemnation, has continued, with little objection from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in contrast to criticism voiced by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say Israeli settlements are intended to deny them a viable and contiguous country. Israel’s refusal to halt settlement expansion was one of the reasons peace talks collapsed in 2014.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

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)

Hollywood executives back Netflix over anti-Israel ‘Fauda’ boycott

A scene from the Israeli television series Fauda. REUTERS/Courtesy Netflix

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – More than 50 Hollywood executives have thrown their support behind Netflix, which is facing a campaign by a Palestinian-led movement to drop Israeli television series “Fauda” from its streaming platform.

In a letter on Tuesday to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, the executives from record labels and Hollywood talent agencies called the move by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement a “blatant attempt at artistic censorship.”

“Fauda” is an Israeli-made television thriller set in the West Bank about an Israeli undercover agent who comes out of retirement to hunt for a Palestinian militant.

The show, which features dialog in both Hebrew and Arabic, was first broadcast on Israeli television in 2015 and premiered on Netflix in December 2016. Netflix is due to release the second season in May.

In a posting on its website last week, the BDS called on Netflix to “nix ‘Fauda’,” saying the series “glorifies the Israeli military’s war crimes against the Palestinian people.”

“Failing to do so will open Netflix to nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability,” the posting added.

Netflix declined to comment on Wednesday.

In its letter of support, the U.S.-based Creative Community for Peace called “Fauda” a “nuanced portrayal of issues related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

“We want you to know that we stand behind you and Netflix in the face of this blatant attempt at artistic censorship,” the letter said. Signatories included Universal Music Publishing Group Chief Executive Jody Gerson, Geffen Records president Neil Jacobson and Steve Schnur, music president at videogame producer Electronic Arts.

The campaign against “Fauda” is the latest move since 2005 by BDS to promote a global cultural boycott against Israel.

It has succeeded in recent years in dissuading a number of music acts, including Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, from performing in Israel.

(This version of the story corrects typographical error in penultimate paragraph to against instead of again)

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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)

Landmine clearing near Jordan River baptism site begins before Easter

By Eli Berlzon

QASR AL-YAHUD, West Bank (Reuters) – On the western bank of the River Jordan, not far from the spot where Christians believe Jesus was baptized, experts have begun clearing thousands of mines from the ruins of eight churches and surrounding land deserted more than 50 years ago.

Once the anti-tank mines and other explosives are removed, the compounds containing a Roman Catholic church and seven Eastern Orthodox churches abandoned after the 1967 Middle East war can be re-opened, said HALO Trust, a Scottish-based charity organizing the endeavor together with Israel.

The mined area, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is about a kilometer (half-mile) from Qasr al-Yahud, the baptism site which HALO said was visited by around 570,000 Christian pilgrims last year.

A team of Israeli, Palestinian and Georgian experts, using hand-held mine detectors and armored mechanical diggers, began clearing the church compounds and the surrounding desert shrubland shortly before the Christian Holy Week that precedes Easter.

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Rusting barbed wire fences, with signs warning “Danger Mines!” in Hebrew, English and Arabic, run along a dusty road leading to the 100-hectare (27 acre) area. HALO says the land contains around 2,600 mines and an unknown number of other unexploded ordnance.

Some of the churches may be boobytrapped, the charity says.

In a safe zone at the riverside on Thursday, a family from Spain wearing white baptismal robes stepped into the water.

HALO has been raising funds for the project over several years and said in a statement it intends to complete work at the site by Christmas.

Israel’s Defence Ministry and its Israel National Mine Action Authority have contributed at least half the funding for the project, a ministry spokeswoman said.

HALO described the project as a rare example of multi-faith collaboration in the Middle East, involving Israel and the Palestinian Authority that administers limited self-rule in the West Bank, which welcomed the efforts.

The river area was once a war zone between Israel and Jordan. The two neighbors made peace in 1994 but it took many years before some mine clearing began.

Both claim that the site where John the Baptist and Jesus met is on their side of the biblical river. The Gospel of John refers to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” without further details.

In 2002, Jordan opened its site, showing remains of ancient churches and writings of pilgrims down the centuries to bolster its claim. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2015.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel opened the baptism area on the western bank of the river in 2011. It has a modern visitor center and stairs for pilgrims to descend into the muddy water.

HALO, which has cleared landmines all over the world and was once sponsored by the late Princess Diana, said on Thursday that three of their staff members were killed and two injured by the accidental detonation of an anti-tank mine in Nagorno Karabakh.

The group were in a vehicle conducting a minefield survey when the explosion occurred in the separatist region in Azerbaijan.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)