Most of the protesters killed this week by Israeli fire along the border with the Gaza Strip were members of Hamas, the militant group said yesterday, an assertion that deepens the starkly different narratives on both sides over the deaths.
Israel, which has faced blistering international criticism over its response, is likely to latch on to the remarks to bolster its claims that Hamas has used the weekly border protests as cover to stage attacks.
But human-rights groups say the identity of slain protesters, including a possible affiliation to a militant group, is irrelevant if they were unarmed and did not pose an immediate threat to the lives of soldiers when they were shot.
In an interview with Baladna TV, a private Palestinian news outlet that broadcasts via Facebook, senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil said 50 out of the nearly 60 protesters killed Monday were Hamas members, with the others being "from the people".
Bardawil did not elaborate on the nature of their membership in the group and his claim could not be independently verified. It was unclear if the protesters he was referring to were militants or civilian supporters of the Islamic group, which rules Gaza and opposes Israel's existence.
The affiliation may matter little to those who have deemed Israel's response to the protests to be heavy-handed.
"It was clear to Israel and now it is clear to the whole world that there was no popular protest. This was an organised mob of terrorists organised by Hamas," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had tallied similar numbers to Hamas and "won't let those who call for our destruction to breach our borders and to threaten our communities".