Thousands of Palestinians marched to Gaza’s border with Israel yesterday in the largest such demonstration in recent memory. At least 15 people were killed by Israeli fire on the first day of what Hamas organisers said will be six weeks of daily protests against a stifling border blockade.
It was the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas. Fourteen of the marchers were killed and more than 750 wounded by Israeli fire in clashes along the border fence, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
The Israeli military said thousands of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires toward troops deployed on the other side of the border fence. It accused militants of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of mass protests, saying that in one incident, Palestinian gunmen fired toward soldiers.
The large turnout of the flagwaving marchers in the dangerous border zone was a testament to Hamas’ organising skills, but it also signaled desperation among Gaza residents after a decade-old border closure. Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.
Asmaa al-Katari said she participated in the march despite the risks and would join upcoming protests because “life is difficult here in Gaza and we have nothing to lose.”
The history student said she is a descendant of refugees from what is now Israel’s southern Negev Desert. She said her grandfathers had lived in tents as refugees.
“I want to tell the world that the cause of our grandfathers is not dead,” she added.
Israel had threatened a tough response, hoping to deter breaches of the border fence. The Israeli military released video showing a row of snipers perched on a high earthen embankment facing the Gaza crowd in one location.
Friday’s high death toll and prospects of daily protests in coming weeks have raised concerns about another escalation along the volatile frontier. Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas have fought three cross-border wars in recent years.
‘RIGHT TO RETURN’
The protest campaign is meant to spotlight Palestinian demands for a “right of return” to what is now Israel. A large majority of Gaza’s two million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.
The 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, on May 15, is marked by Palestinians as their “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands were uprooted.
The planned mass sit-ins on the border are also seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007. The continued closure has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. Other attempts to break the blockade, including wars with Israel and attempts to reconcile with the West Bankbased Abbas, have failed over the years.
The latest Egyptian-led reconciliation efforts collapsed earlier this month, when a bomb targeted but missed Abbas’ prime minister and intelligence chief during a visit to Gaza.
Hamas and Abbas traded accusations after the bombing, signalling that any deal on Hamas handing the Gaza government to Abbas is increasingly unlikely.
The Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiyeh Sinwar, said the protests are a signal to Israel and the world that “our people will not accept the continuation of the siege.”
Friday’s violence began before dawn when a 27-year-old farmer picking parsley in his field was hit by an Israeli tank shell in southern Gaza, the Health Ministry said. Another farmer was injured by shrapnel.
Israel’s military said troops directed tank fire toward suspicious figures on the border.
The Health Ministry said at least 1,000 people were injured, including 758 by live fire and the rest by rubber bullets and tear gas.
Friday’s protest campaign began as Jews prepared to mark Passover, and it is scheduled to culminate with the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, in mid-May.