Benjamin Netanyahu has praised Israeli troops, a day after they were accused of killing at least 16 Palestinian protesters at the border with Gaza.
In a message posted on Twitter in which he thanked soldiers for allowing the nation to celebrate the Passover holiday, the Israeli Prime Minister, wrote: “Well done to our soldiers. Israel acts vigorously and with determination to protect its sovereignty and the security of its citizens.”
He posted the message a day after thousands of Palestinians rallied on the Gaza side of the border fence, throwing stones and rolling burning tyres at Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops responded with live fire, killing 16 protesters, according to Palestinian officials, in what marked some of the deadliest violence in recent years. On Saturday, as many as 70 Palestinians were injured as clashes continued, though more sporadically.
Israel, as it routinely does, said its soldiers had only fired in self defence and said there were efforts by Palestinians to break through the fence that separates Gaza from the rest of the country.
But Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, saying the soldiers opened fire on protesters who did not pose a threat. Human rights groups questioned Israel’s use of live fire.
UN chief Antonio Guterres called for an “independent and transparent investigation”, as did European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas declared Saturday a day of national mourning and in a speech said he held Israel fully responsible for the deaths.
The Associated Press said thousands of Palestinians attended funerals for 14 of those killed – two were buried on Friday – with mourners holding Palestinian flags and some chanting “revenge” and firing into the air. The protests were mainly organised by Hamas, the group which won power in Gaza and which it said was the start of a six-week-long protest campaign against a stifling decade-old blockade of the territory.
Protests are aiming to culminate in a large border march on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Israel will target militant groups inside Gaza if violence along the territory’s border with Israel drags on, the chief military spokesman said on Saturday, seeking to put the blame on the Palestinians. As it was, on Saturday, the clashes were significantly reduced with just small groups of Palestinians throwing stones.
However, the Gaza Health Ministry said as many as 70 Palestinians were injured by live Israeli fire and tear gas, according to Reuters. The AP said in two separate incidents, a reporter for the news agency saw two men who walked close to the fence get shot in the legs by soldiers.
Palestinian health officials said at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and more than 750 hit by live rounds on Friday, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas.
In Friday’s confrontations, large crowds had gathered near the fence, with smaller groups of protesters rushing forward, throwing stones and burning tyres.
Israel’s military initially claimed on Friday that “thousands of Palestinians are rioting in six locations throughout the Gaza Strip, rolling burning tyres and hurling stones”. But video released by the army appeared to show less actually engaged in direct violence.
On Saturday, the chief army spokesman, Brig Gen. Ronen Manelis, said that while thousands of Palestinians approached the border Friday, those engaged in stone-throwing were in the hundreds.
Mr Manelis denied soldiers used excessive force, saying those killed by Israeli troops were men between the ages of 18 and 30 who were involved in violence and belonged to militant factions.