The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has warned Israel to exercise “extreme caution” in its response to continuing demonstrations in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians have joined protests at camps close to the border.
The warning came amid fears of fresh deadly violence on Friday after Israeli fire claimed 18 Palestinian lives at demonstrations at the Gaza border fence a week ago.
Guterres’s comments were followed by an explicit warning by the UN human rights spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell that unjustified recourse to live fire could amount to wilful killing of civilians, a breach of the Ffourth Geneva convention.
Guterres’s appeal came as Israel deployed tanks and snipers along the Gaza border in anticipation of further protests on Friday, a week after the bloodiest single day since a 2014 war. Another two Gazans have been killed since.
First reports from Gaza suggested three people had been wounded as clashes erupted in five hotspots along the border fence, with Israeli troops reportedly using live fire.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the Israel defence forces were anticipating that as many as 50,000 demonstrators could participate on Friday, with the rules of engagement allowing live fire to be used against anyone who approaches the border fence apparently unchanged.
In a statement the Israeli military underlined its determination to prevent any protesters approaching close to the fence itself. “The IDF will not allow any breach of the security infrastructure and fence, which protects Israeli civilians, and will act against those who are involved in these attacks,” it said.
Guterres said in a statement: “I particularly urge Israel to exercise extreme caution with the use of force in order to avoid casualties. Civilians must be able to exercise their right to demonstrate peacefully.
“I call upon all parties on the ground to avoid confrontation and exercise maximum restraint.”
Protesters burned tires as Gazans streamed towards the protest camps to demonstrate in support Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
According to reports, a bulldozer had put up an earth berm near the protest camp nearest to the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, designed to protect it from Israeli fire.
The Gaza strip’s border with Israel is highly sensitive for both sides, carving a line south from the dunes of the Erez crossing in the north across a low ridgeline to Egypt and the area of Rafah in the south.
Overseen in places by observation balloons, in other places the border is comprised of a double fence and an Israeli security road.
As tensions mounted on Friday Israeli forces fired tear gas that landed inside the encampment near the large agricultural village of Khuza’a, briefly sending people fleeing.
Yehia Abu Daqqa, a 20-year-old student, said he had come to demonstrate and honour those killed in the past.
“Yes, there is fear,” he said of the risks of advancing toward the fence. “We are here to tell the occupation that we are not weak.”
Friday’s march is the second in what Gaza’s Hamas rulers have said would be several weeks of protests against a decade-old border blockade of the territory.
Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and said it would prevent a breach of the fence at all costs.
A leading Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, issued a rare appeal to Israeli soldiers to refuse “grossly illegal” orders to fire at unarmed protesters.
A White House envoy urged Palestinians to stay away from the fence. Jason Greenblatt said the United States condemned “leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters including children to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed”.
Twenty two Palestinians were killed in Gaza over the past week, among them 16 involved in last Friday’s protests, according to Gaza health officials. This includes a 30-year-old who died on Friday of injuries sustained last week, the officials said.