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Apr 20, 5:18 AM EDT

Israeli military aircraft drop leaflets urging Palestinians to stay away from Gaza border protest


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AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli military aircraft on Friday dropped leaflets urging Palestinians to stay away from the Gaza-Israel border fence and warning that they endanger their lives if they follow directives of Hamas organizers of the weekly protests there.

The leaflets were dropped ahead of what is to be the fourth large-scale border march since March 30. In the past three weeks, 28 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli troops firing from across the border fence.

The military has said it is defending Israel's border and that its troops, including snipers, only target "instigators." It has also accused Hamas of using mass protests as a cover for attacks.

Israel has faced international criticism for its response to the mass marches. Rights groups have branded open-fire orders as unlawful, saying they effectively permit soldiers to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.

White House envoy Jason Greenblatt, a member of President Donald Trump's Mideast team, said on social media that Palestinians in Gaza have a "right to protest their dire humanitarian circumstances."

Organizers "should focus on that message, not stoke the potential for more violence with firebombs and flaming kites, and must keep a safe distance from the border," said Greenblatt, adding that "the cost of these demonstrations is too high in loss of life and injuries."

The protests are to continue at least until May 15, the anniversary of Israel's 1948 creation. Palestinians mark the day as their "nakba," or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes in the Mideast war over Israel's founding.

On Thursday, organizers moved sit-in protest tents, each set up several hundred meters from the border, closer to the fence. Organizers said they will gradually move the camps toward the fence until May 15, but have made conflicting comments about a possible mass border breach.

Hamas says the protests are aimed at breaking a crippling border blockade that was imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group overran the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections.

The marches also press for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

In Friday's leaflets, the Israeli military said that it is "prepared for all scenarios," urging Gaza residents to stay away from the fence and not attempt to harm it.

"Don't obey the Hamas terror organization's directions - they endanger your lives," the leaflet said.

While Hamas and smaller Palestinian factions have taken a lead as organizers, the mass marches are also fueled by growing desperation among Gaza's 2 million residents.

The border blockade has trapped nearly all of them in the tiny coastal territory, gutted the economy and deepened poverty. Gaza residents typically get fewer than five hours of electricity per day, while unemployment has soared above 40 percent.

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Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Jericho, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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