Palestinians bury their dead after Israel kills nine in border clashes

Joe Dyke and Sakher Abou El Oun
1 / 5
Mourners carry the body of a Palestinian killed during clashes with Israeli forces on the Israeli-Gaza border, during his funeral in the Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018

Palestinian mourners in the Gaza Strip on Saturday buried their dead, including a journalist, after Israeli troops killed nine during the latest border clashes in a week of bloodshed.

Thousands of protesters approached the border fence around Gaza for a second Friday in a row, burning tyres and hurling stones at Israeli forces, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition.

In addition to the nine dead, at least 491 were wounded by Israeli gunfire, the health ministry in the Hamas-run enclave said.

Israel said there were around 20,000 protesters and that they were seeking to breach the border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "saluted" the Israeli soldiers "who protect us at all times."

"They (the protesters) talk about human rights, but actually want to crush the Jewish state," he said. "We won't let them."

Numbers were down from the previous Friday, when tens of thousands approached the border in demonstrations that saw Israeli forces kill 19 Palestinians, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since a 2014 war.

The demonstrations largely abated by Saturday, but three Palestinians were wounded by Israeli forces in a small clash east of Gaza City in the afternoon, one of them seriously, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

No Israelis were injured on either day and the latest deaths have sparked fresh calls for an investigation.

Among those killed on Friday was Yasser Murtaja, 30, a photographer with the Gaza-based Ain Media agency, who died from his wounds after being shot, the health ministry said.

Witnesses said he was close to the front of the protests in southern Gaza when he was hit.

An AFP picture taken after he was wounded showed Murtaja wearing a press vest as he received treatment.

His brother Motazem, also a journalist, said he was next to him when he was shot. "The target was very clearly journalists," he said.

Israel's army said it "does not intentionally target journalists."

"The circumstances in which journalists were allegedly hit by Israeli Defence Force (IDF) fire are not familiar to the IDF, and are being looked into," it said in a statement.

- 'Intentional shot' -

Murtaja's body was taken from the hospital to his home in Gaza City on Saturday morning, with dozens of journalists following, many fighting back tears.

It was wrapped in a Palestinian flag, with a press flak jacket placed on his stomach.

Ismail Haniya, the head of Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, attended the funeral and said that journalists were attacked by Israel while trying to show a "true picture of a blockaded, downtrodden people".

In the West Bank political capital of Ramallah, around 50 Palestinian journalists held a vigil for Murtaja.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said Murtaja was "obviously the victim of an intentional shot" and that his organisation "condemns with indignation the deliberate shootings of the Israeli army against journalists."

Deloire urged an independent investigation of the incident.

The Foreign Press Association operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories urged the Israeli army "to show restraint in areas where journalists are operating and to conduct a fast and open investigation into this incident."

The Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate said five other reporters were also shot and wounded by the Israeli army during Friday's protests, despite wearing clothes clearly identifying them as journalists.

The Union of Journalists in Israel demanded clarifications on the reports of the Palestinian journalists being shot from the state's military chief.

"A democratic state's army should not harm journalists in the line of duty," the union said in a letter to Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot.

"We ask that you examine the claims that Israeli soldiers fired at journalists," the union said.

"We also would like to know if there are military directives regarding conduct in areas with a heavy media presence," the letter said.

Earlier Saturday, thousands of Arabs rallied in northern Israel in solidarity with the people of Gaza, some of them holding pictures of Murtaja.

- 'Terrorists posing as civilians' -

Weeks of border protests have been called to demand the return of Palestinians to land they were forced from or fled after the founding of Israel 70 years ago.

They come with tensions high as the United States gears up to shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after recognising the disputed city as the capital of the Jewish state.

Protesters on Friday said economic woes were also fuelling frustration in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for a decade.

Late Friday, Kuwait called on the Security Council to investigate the deaths, but the US is likely to veto such a probe.

Israel rebuffed international calls for an investigation into last Friday's killings, with the army saying troops opened fire "in accordance with the rules of engagement".