GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - The leader of Gazaâ€™s ruling Hamas group and Israelâ€™s prime minister staked out tough positions Monday, making de-escalation on the Israel-Gaza border in the near future unlikely.
Since late March, 26 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli fire in mass border protests led by Hamas, but also driven by widespread desperation over the territoryâ€™s decade-old border blockade by Israel and Egypt.
The protests are seen, in part, as an attempt by Hamas to break the blockade.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh renewed a pledge Monday that the marches would pave the way for a return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
â€śWe will return to Palestine, our villages and Jerusalem,â€ť Haniyeh said in a fiery speech at one of five protest camps set up along the border.
He stopped short of threatening a mass breach of the border, though another Hamas leader has done so in recent speeches.
Israel has accused Hamas of using the protests as a cover for carrying out attacks and bringing infiltrators into Israel. It has said some of those at the border tried to damage the fence, planted explosives or hurled firebombs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Sderot, an Israeli community near Gaza, and said Israelâ€™s top priority is its security.
â€śWe have one clear and simple rule and we seek to express it constantly: If someone tries to attack you - rise up and attack him,â€ť Netanyahu said. â€śWe will not allow, here on the Gaza border, them to hurt us. We will hurt them.â€ť
Israel has said it has the right to defend its sovereign border, amid mounting international expressions of concern about the escalation of the past 10 days.
On Sunday, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said Israelâ€™s â€śviolence against civilians - in a situation such as one prevailing in Gazaâ€ť may constitute war crimes. But in an apparent reference to Hamas, she also said â€śthe use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activitiesâ€ť could also be a war crime.
Haniyeh, the Hamas chief, said protests would continue. Since March 30, there have been two mass demonstrations on Fridays, and another one is expected this Friday.
In addition to 26 Palestinians killed in protests, three were killed by Israeli tank fire and three were gunmen apparently trying to sneak through the border fence.
Hamasâ€™ promise of a â€śGreat March of Returnâ€ť has particular resonance in Gaza, where two-thirds of 2 million residents are descendants of refugees, uprooted in the 1948 war over Israelâ€™s creation.
Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade since Hamas, an Islamic militant group, overran the territory in 2007. Hamas has fought three cross-border wars with Israel, and its political charter calls for Israelâ€™s destruction.
Earlier Monday, Israeli fighter jets struck a Hamas target in Gaza, in response to two explosive devices found near Israelâ€™s border with the territory, the military said. No injuries were reported in the strike.