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Jerusalem – 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 Wednesday, 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.

For Israel, it was enough to cement its narrative.

“It was clear to Israel and now it is clear to the whole world that there was no popular protest. This was an organized mob of terrorists organized 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.”

In response to the uproar over his remarks, Bardawil later said in a statement that Israel was “legitimizing the killing of Palestinians just because they are Palestinians or just because they are Hamas, even if they were unarmed and defending their dignity and rights.”

Organizers say the wave of border protests is meant in large part to break a decade-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt and pressure Israel to ease its restrictions. Since the Hamas-led protests began March 30, more than 110 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 wounded by live fire, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Palestinian officials say the vast majority of the casualties have been unarmed protesters. One Israeli soldier has been wounded.

The weekly protests peaked on Monday when about 40,000 Gaza residents descended on the border area. As in previous demonstrations, smaller groups of protesters broke away and moved closer to the border fence, burning tires, throwing stones or hurling firebombs. Some tried to attack the border fence.

Israeli snipers, perched behind sand berms, opened fire from the other side of the fence, killing 59 Palestinians and wounding hundreds.

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