An Israeli aircraft for the first time fired warning shots at people in Gaza preparing explosive balloons on Saturday, as four Palestinians were killed in violent protests a day earlier.
“The IDF considers the use of explosive balloons and kites to be very severe and will work to prevent them from being used,” the IDF Spokesman said.
Hundreds were injured on Friday as 10,000 rioters gathered in five locations along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.
In addition to burning tires, throwing stones and using incendiary kites, Palestinians introduced a new technique by launching kites and balloons with explosive devices attached to them.
Unlike incendiary kites, which have set fires raging across the South since the current protests began in late March, the latest devices being launched from Gaza are kites and helium balloons (which can fly farther) that have explosive devices attached to them, such as pipe bombs, which are set off by cellphones once they approach troops. On Friday, one of dozens of these devices exploded in the air above troops, causing no injuries.
While the majority of the explosive kites and balloons were downed by IDF fire, protesters also shot Kalashnikov assault rifles at the IDF drones countering the incendiary kites threat.
Palestinian news agency Wafa identified the fatalities from Friday’s riots as: 29-yearold Yousef al-Fasih, who was shot by live fire east of Gaza City; 15-year-old Haitham al-Jamal and 25-year-old Ziad Jadallah Bureim who were shot east of Khan Yunis; and 26-year-old Imad Nabil Abu Darabi, who was shot east of Jabalya in the northern part of the enclave.
According to Wafa, another 600 Palestinians were wounded, 92 from live-fire incidents, including seven critically, and among the wounded 26 children and 14 women. Among those wounded was Agence France-Presse photographer Muhammad Abed al-Baba, who was shot in the leg by IDF fire in northern Gaza.
According to AFP, Baba, who has been working for the news agency for 18 years, was 200 meters from the fence east of Jabalya and wearing a press vest and helmet when he was shot.
The IDF said protesters had hurled several explosive devices and a grenade toward troops and had launched dozens of kites and balloons with explosives attached to them.
The military also said Friday evening that a military post had been struck by gunfire in the northern Gaza Strip.
Troops responded with crowd dispersal measures, as well as live fire in accordance with IDF rules of engagement.
While the majority of the explosive kites and balloons were downed by IDF fire, during the protests Palestinians also shot Kalashnikovs at IDF drones deployed to counter the threat posed by incendiary kites.
Maj.-Gen. Kami Abu Rokon, the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), took to his Arabic Facebook page and stressed to Gaza residents that Hamas was exploiting them and endangering their lives.
“Hamas is leading you to the chaos march and sending you to the border fence and risking your lives, while its leaders are at a safe place, monitoring the events from afar. Gaza residents – think for yourselves and don’t get dragged by the leadership that takes advantage of you,” he wrote.
Also, a Palestinian with a slingshot was caught trying to infiltrate near Nahal Oz.
The protests along the border – dubbed by organizers as “the Great Return March,” have been the greatest threats to Israeli security in the region since Operation Protective Edge in 2014 due to a combination of terrorist tunnels, riots, attempted infiltrations and the use of incendiary items attached to kites and balloons.
Teams of firefighters were also busy on Friday putting out dozens of fires in fields burning in dozens of spots along the Gaza border and near communities such as Beeri and Nahal Oz.
Due to the volatile situation the IDF has deployed Iron Dome batteries along the Gaza vicinity for possible mortar and rocket fire in response to Palestinian deaths.
“The determination and professionalism of the IDF soldiers on the Gaza border has proven itself,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said. “Despite Hamas and Iran’s great efforts, fewer and fewer terrorists are coming to our border.”
In spite of the flames and smoke, the number of participants at Friday’s demonstrations was lower than expected.
“We are not asking for the moon,” said Amer Abu Khalaf, a 20-year-old business administration student who took part in the protest, saying the demonstrations were aimed to “break the siege and have the world recognize our right to return.”
Organizers linked Friday’s protests to the annual “Jerusalem Day” events in Iran, which preach Israel’s destruction and protest the US recognition in December of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
“There is no such state called Israel that could have a capital called Jerusalem,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said, adding that the protests, which also demand an end to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza, would continue.
The international community has charged that Israel has used excessive force in response to the riots. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza has reported that 131 Palestinians were killed by IDF soldiers in the last 10 weeks and more than 13,000 have been wounded.
While in London on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the IDF’s actions.
“We tried tear gas, all sorts of other devices, and none has worked against this type of tactic,” Netanyahu said. “Hamas’s goal was to have as many casualties, our goal was to minimize casualties and avoid fatalities.”
Netanyahu said he has instructed technological experts to develop a new method of riot dispersal that will avoid loss of life.
“When I talk with European leaders, I always say ‘What would you do?’ The last thing we want is any violence or casualties,” Netanyahu said.
“No country in the world [has offered an alternative], I spoke to every country you can imagine.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon described Gaza protesters on Twitter as “hateful morons” and “Hamas Jugend,” the latter a play on “Hitler Youth” in German.
Separately, some 90,000 Palestinians crossed from the West Bank into Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers, the IDF reported. It added that another 8,000 worshipers had prayed at the Ibrahimi Mosque located at the Tomb of the Patriarchs complex in Hebron.Reuters contributed to this story.