Hamas official says 50 members killed this week on Gaza border


Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

A senior member of Gaza's Hamas rulers said Wednesday that all but a dozen of the 62 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire during Gaza border protests this week were members of the Islamist group.

The remarks were seized upon by the Israeli army and government in an attempt to fend off the harsh global criticism over the deaths and prove they were orchestrated and led by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Israeli forces killed 60 Palestinians on Monday when tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered near the border while smaller numbers approached the fence and sought to break through.

For more than six weeks, marchers have been demanding the right to return to their homes seized by Israel in the 1948 war surrounding the creation of the Jewish state.

Two more Palestinians were killed on Tuesday as Palestinians marked the Nakba, or "catastrophe", commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the war.

The bloodshed continued to draw world attention as violence abated late Wednesday, on the eve of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Sporadic cross-border fire was a reminder of the situation's unresolved volatility, however.

Pope Francis said he was "very worried" by escalating violence in the Middle East, with Arab foreign ministers set to hold an "extraordinary" meeting Thursday to discuss the bloodshed.

And Hamas strongman Yahya Sinwar warned that the movement could return to armed resistance.

Tensions between Israel and Turkey, meanwhile, continued to rise over the Gaza deaths, with Israel's consul general ordered to leave Istanbul in the wake of a similar move against Turkey's counterpart in Jerusalem.

The Israeli ambassador to Turkey has already been ordered out of the country.

Since border protests and clashes began on March 30, 116 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire across the Gaza Strip.

One Israeli soldier has been reported wounded in that time.

Monday's protests coincided with the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which has deeply angered the Palestinians who see the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of the city as the capital of their future state.

Hamas said it supported the mass mobilisation, insisting however they were a civilian initiative and peaceful.

- 'A Hamas operation' -

The Israeli army accuses Hamas of using the cover of the demonstrations to approach and damage the border fence, including laying explosive devices and attacking soldiers, and insists its actions are necessary to defend the border and prevent mass infiltrations.

There have been numerous calls for an independent investigation into the deaths, with Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium among those supporting such action.

A senior member of Hamas said Wednesday that most of the Palestinians killed by Israeli fire during border protests and clashes this week were members of the Islamist group.

"Fifty of the martyrs were Hamas and 12 from the people. How can Hamas reap the fruits if it pays such an expensive price?" Salah Bardawil said.

He did not give further details about whether they were members of the group's armed or political wing, or what they were doing at the time they were killed.

Bardawil's comments were welcomed by Israeli officials.

Bardawil "reveals the truth", tweeted Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It wasn't a peaceful demonstration, but a Hamas operation."

And Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that Bardawil had "set the record straight".

"Take his word for it. This was no peaceful protest," Conricus wrote on Twitter.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera on Wednesday evening, Hamas's Gaza head Yahya Sinwar meanwhile warned his movement could return to armed resistance.

"We have sent clear messages to the enemy via many international and regional leaders that if the blockade continues we will not hesitate to use military resistance," he said.

"The enemy's leadership knows that if we decide to, we can turn the enemy's life into hell."

- 'Wrong side of history' -

Also on Wednesday, Guatemala inaugurated its Israel embassy in Jerusalem, the first country to follow in the footsteps of the United States' deeply controversial move.

Speaking at a reception with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, Netanyahu said Israel had "similar numbers" to those mentioned by Bardawil.

"Israel will continue to defend itself in all necessary means and not let those who call to destroy us breach our borders and threaten our communities," the Israeli leader said.

The US and Guatemalan moves break with decades of international consensus.

Paraguay's embassy is expected to relocate before the end of the month.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat lashed out at Guatemala.

"The Guatemalan government has chosen to stand on the wrong side of history, to side with violations of international law and human rights, and to take a hostile step against the Palestinian people and the Arab world," he said in a statement.

Jerusalem's status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US embassy relocation infuriated the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority said Wednesday it was recalling its envoys to Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria after their ambassadors attended an Israeli reception marking the US embassy move.

On Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas withdrew his top representative to the United States.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.