UN leader calls for independent probe after 15 killed at Gaza border protest

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for an independent investigation into deadly clashes in Gaza between Palestinians and Israeli troops, while Security Council members urge restraint on both sides.

Violence marks start of 6-week 'right of return' protest campaign

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, listens as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a Security Council meeting at UN headquarters on Wednesday. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for an independent investigation into deadly clashes in Gaza between Palestinians and Israeli troops, while Security Council members urged restraint on both sides.

The council didn't decide on any action or joint message after an emergency meeting Friday evening. Kuwait convened it hours after the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the coastal strip.

Fifteen people were killed and more than 750 wounded by Israeli fire as thousands of Palestinian protesters marched to Gaza's border with Israel, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. The Israeli military said that thousands of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires toward troops, that Palestinian gunmen fired toward soldiers in one incident and that militants were trying to conduct attacks under the cover of protests.

Guterres wants "an independent and transparent investigation" into the violence, spokesperson Farhan Haq said.

Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour said he was disappointed the Security Council didn't come together to condemn what he called a "heinous massacre" of peaceful demonstrators, or to support his call to provide protection for Palestinian civilians.

"We expect the Security Council to shoulder its responsibility" and "defuse this volatile situation, which clearly constitutes a threat to international peace and security," Mansour said.

Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon said "the international community must not be deceived" by what he termed "a well-organized and violent terror-gathering" under the banner of a peaceful march.

"The Palestinians sunk to a new deceitful low so that they could use the UN to spread lies about Israel" while its representatives weren't there because of the Passover holiday, Danon said in a statement.

Alarm at flare-up

Some Security Council members suggested an investigation and emphasized that Israel should ensure force is only used proportionally. Some also made a point of noting Israel's security concerns and calling on demonstrators to avoid violence.

They all expressed alarm at the flare-up of conflict in a volatile region.

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The U.S., which often complains about what it sees as anti-Israel bias at the UN, urged all involved in the conflict to lower tensions.

"Bad actors who use protests as a cover to incite violence endanger innocent lives," added Walter Miller, an adviser at Washington's UN mission.

Israel and Hamas have fought three cross-border wars in recent years.

The protests come as Gaza is in the 10th year of a border closure. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.

Israel vows to expand response

Israel's chief military spokesperson said Saturday the government will target what it terms "terror organizations" in Gaza if violence along the territory's border with Israel drags on.

Relatives of Palestinian Hamdan Abu Amshah, who was killed along Israel's border with Gaza, mourn during his funeral in Beit Hanoun in Gaza on Saturday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Israeli troops responded with live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets, while drones dropped tear gas from above. The army released video showing soldiers with rifles perched on high earthen embankments overlooking the scene.

Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief army spokesperson, denied allegations of excessive use of 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.

He alleged Gaza health officials exaggerated the number of those wounded, and that several dozen at most were injured by live fire while the rest were merely shaken up by tear gas and other riot dispersal means.

Palestinians gather during a protest near the Gaza Strip border with Israel, in eastern Gaza City on Saturday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

Gaza City's Shifa Hospital received 284 injured people Friday, the majority with bullet injuries, said spokesperson Ayman Sahbani. He said 70 were under the age of 18 and 11 were women.

He said 40 surgeries were performed Friday and that 50 were planned Saturday.

"These are all from live bullets that broke limbs or caused deep, open wounds with damage to nerves and veins," he said.

Among those recovering from surgery was 16-year-old Marwan Yassin, who had thrown stones with a slingshot at the fence Friday and was shot in both legs. One of his legs was wrapped in bandages and the other had a cast and metal fixtures.

A Palestinian protester hurls stones toward Israeli soldiers during a protest near the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Saturday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

His mother said at his bedside that she would ban him from future protests.

On Saturday, a few hundred people gathered at five tent encampments that have been set up several hundred metres from the border fence. The tents serve as the launch points for marches.

Manelis reiterated Saturday that Israel "will not allow a massive breach of the fence into Israeli territory."

If violence continues, "we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places too," he said.

The border protests were seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after it seized control of Gaza in 2007. The continued closure has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern.

The large turnout of marchers in the dangerous border zone also seemed to signal desperation among Gaza residents. Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.

The protest campaign is also meant to spotlight Palestinian demands for a "right of return" to what is now Israel.