JERUSALEM — A senior Israeli Cabinet minister on Monday rejected international criticism of Israel's open-fire policies along the Gaza border, saying the disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties does not reflect the true story.
Speaking to foreign reporters, Yoav Gallant accused Gaza's Hamas rulers of cynically exploiting their own repressed population to score points against Israel and urged the world not to "calculate who is right and who is wrong by the numbers of the casualties."
The Islamic militant group has been organizing weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border since March 30. Over 115 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli army fire since late March, the vast majority unarmed. Over half were killed on a single day.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for shooting unarmed protesters, with rights groups accusing the military of acting illegally by using deadly force from a long distance when soldiers' lives are not immediately threatened.
"In the Second World War, 7.5 million Germans were killed and only 500,000 British. So who was the aggressor, the Germans or the British?" he asked. "The issue is not the numbers. The issue is who is doing what."
The protests have been fueled by widespread despair over an 11-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. The blockade has devastated the economy, with unemployment now close to 50 percent, and made it virtually impossible for Gazans to travel abroad.
Organizers say the protests are meant to lift the blockade. They also have demanded the "right of return" to lost properties in what is now Israel. Some two-thirds of Gaza's 2 million people are descendants of Palestinians who either fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948.
Israel says the blockade is needed to weaken Hamas, a group that seeks its destruction. It accuses Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover to break through the border and carry out attacks.
Gallant, a former Israeli general who once commanded the Gaza region and a current member of the inner Security Cabinet, said Israel's policy has been to aim at demonstrators' legs and try to minimize casualties. He said non-lethal means, such as rubber-coated bullets, have proven ineffective at stopping crowds from trying to break through the border fence.
Despite these claims, hundreds of unarmed people have been wounded by Israeli fire, often times far from the border. Unarmed journalists, paramedics, minors and two women have been among the dead.
Gallant acknowledged that "mistakes" have happened, blaming the uneven terrain and crowded protests. Protesters often set tires on fire to make it difficult for Israeli snipers.
The widespread criticism of Israel, coming from places like the U.N. and European Union, has drawn angry reactions from Israeli leaders and military commanders.
On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, offered support to Israel, accusing the media of anti-Israel bias in its Gaza coverage.
A former lawyer for President Donald Trump, Friedman sounded like his boss by saying international news coverage "had no basis in fact" and telling reporters to "keep your mouths shut until you figure it out."
"They fit a narrative, they fit an opinion, they fit an agenda, but it's not reporting because it's not based on real hard factual analysis," the newspaper Haaretz quoted him as saying.
On Monday, the Israeli military said troops killed an axe-wielding Palestinian attempting to cross into Israel from Gaza.
Hamas had called for another round of protests on Tuesday, the 51st anniversary of the 1967 Mideast war, in which Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
But organizers said they had called off the protest and instead plan a large demonstration on Friday — the last Friday of Ramadan.
In addition to protests and occasional rocket fire, Israel has been battling a spate of fires caused by kites from Gaza rigged with firebombs or burning rags that have damaged forests and torched agricultural fields. The fires have caused significant destruction.
Israel announced Monday that it plans to deduct from tax funds it collects for the Palestinians to compensate the victims of the attacks.
The tax funds are transferred to the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, whose forces were ousted by Hamas in its 2007 takeover of Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, slammed the move, saying it violated past agreements and calling it "robbery and cowardly aggression."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office didn't disclose how much would be deducted. Amir Dan, an official from Israel's tax authority, told Israel's Army Radio that agricultural damage alone stood at $1.4 million.
While Israel's high-tech military has developed sophisticated means of shooting down incoming rockets and destroying Hamas' underground tunnel network, it has been unable to find a way to stop the simple kites from landing in Israel and setting fields on fire.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said some 600 kites have been launched from Gaza, of which a third have reached Israel and started blazes that burned 2,250 acres of farmland. He vowed to stop the phenomenon.
"I don't tend to leave an open account, and we will settle the score with Hamas, with Islamic Jihad and the other terrorists who act against us from Gaza," he said at parliament.
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said residents of southern Israel were still suffering because the government had no long-term policy about what to do with Gaza besides "waiting for the next round and waiting for the next fire."