At least 16 killed and 1,400 hurt near Israeli border in Gaza’s bloodiest day since 2014

Protests demanding the return of Palestinians expelled from the territory spiralled into violence after demonstrators began to throw rocks and petrol bombs, Israeli military said

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 8:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 9:53am

At least 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces and more than 1,400 people wounded in Gaza on Friday, the health ministry in the strip said, as the area experienced its bloodiest day since the 2014 Gaza war. 

The violence erupted as thousands of Gazans – including children – marched near the Israeli border on Friday to protest the displacement of Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948.

Israeli forces fired live ammunition after Gazans near the border fence threw stones and firebombs at soldiers and rolled burning tyres, the army said. Tear gas was also deployed on the protesters using drones.

Late in the day, Israel’s military targeted three Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip with tank fire and an air strike after what it said was an attempted shooting attack against soldiers along the border that caused no injuries. 

The protesters gathered at multiple sites throughout the blockaded territory, which is flanked by Israel along its eastern and northern borders.

Smaller numbers approached within a few hundreds metres of the heavily fortified border fence, with Israeli troops using tear gas and live fire to force them back.

Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, but Israel’s military said the main protests were being used as cover by militants to either break through the border or carry out attacks.  

“It is not a peaceful demonstration,” an Israeli military official told journalists. “There was no small number of attempts to damage the fence and cross” the border, she added. 

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The army said it estimated some 30,000 demonstrators were taking part in the protests. Far smaller protests broke out in parts of the occupied West Bank. 

“Rioters are rolling burning tyres and hurling firebombs and rocks at the security fence and at [Israeli] troops, who are responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators,” the army said.

Protesters were demanding that Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 be allowed to return. 

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya attended the protest, believed to be the first time he had gone so close to the border in years. 

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008, the most recent of which in 2014 ended with a fragile truce. 

On Friday evening, Gazan leaders called on protesters to retreat from the border area until Saturday, with the demonstration planned to extend six weeks, until the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem around May 14. 

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a day of national mourning.

As the protests broke out, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a statement accusing the Israeli army of unnecessary force.

“We strongly condemn Israel’s use of disproportionate force against Palestinians during the peaceful protests today in Gaza,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“It is necessary that Israel rapidly ends use of force that would further raise the tensions in the region,” it said. “We are inviting the international community to fulfil its responsibility to convince Israel to give up on its hostile attitude.” 

The Turkish government has been one of the most vocal advocates of the Palestinian cause, but criticises Israeli assaults in Gaza.

Some Gazans estimated the total number of protesters present was in the tens of thousands, including women and children. 

Earlier in the day, before the main protests began, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli tank fire near the border, the health ministry said.

The Israeli military said the tank fire came after “two suspects approached the security fence … and began operating suspiciously.”

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The upcoming US embassy move has added to tensions surrounding the march.

Israel announced a “closed military zone in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip,” accusing its Islamist rulers Hamas of using the lives of civilians “for the purpose of terror”.

It has deployed reinforcements, including more than 100 special forces snipers, for fear of mass attempts to break through the security fence.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a Twitter post directed to Gazans in both Hebrew and Arabic that “Hamas’s leadership is playing with your life”.

“Anyone who approaches the fence today will be putting themselves in danger.”

US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December has infuriated Palestinians, who claim its annexed eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

Protests along the border are common, often culminating in young Palestinian men throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who respond with tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.

The March of Return protest is different because it is intended to include families with women and children camping near the border for weeks.

Five main camp sites have been set up spanning the length of the frontier, from near the Erez border crossing in the north to Rafah where it meets the Egyptian border in the south.

Cultural events are planned in the larger communal tents, including traditional Palestinian dabke dancing, while tens of thousands of meals will be handed out on Friday, organisers said. 

A young couple were married near one of the camps on Thursday evening.

Saeed Juniya had erected a small tent a few hundred metres from the border fence east of Gaza City, where he was accompanied by his wife and children.

“We are determined and not scared as we are not doing something wrong. The people are demanding their land and to return to their country,” he said.

Organisers say the camps will remain in place until May 15 when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, of the 1948 creation of Israel with the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians.

According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees or their descendants, and the protest is calling for them to be allowed to return to land that is now Israel.

Washington’s plans to open its new embassy around the same time, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Israeli state, have further stoked Palestinian anger.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, on Thursday called the protest an “organised planned provocation” and reiterated “Israel’s right to defend its sovereignty and protect its citizens.”

The start of the protests comes as Palestinians mark Land Day, commemorating the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.