Fifteen Palestinians were killed and some 1,100 were wounded by Israeli tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire in the Gaza Strip on Friday, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said, as a series of massive protests along the security fence around the Hamas-controlled enclave intensified and turned violent.
The Israel Defense Forces estimated that over 30,000 Palestinians took part in Hamas-encouraged “March of Return” demonstrations along the Gaza border, focused at six main protest sites where rioters threw firebombs and stones at troops, tried to bomb and breach the security fence, and burned tires.
The protests appeared to die down after sundown, but the army said it was remaining on high alert. Tanks and jets bombed Hamas sites in the early evening, after two Gazans opened fire on troops, the IDF said.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry reported 14 Gazans were killed in the day-long violence, hours after another Gaza man was killed at the border in disputed circumstances. Some 1,100 were injured as of 7 p.m., with most of the injuries being caused by rubber bullets and tear gas. A smaller number were hit by live fire.
The IDF did not confirm the Hamas figures, but said it faced “violent terrorism” at the border fence. The army said the organizers of the protests were deliberately trying to place civilians in harm’s way, and cited an incident in which it said a seven-year-old girl was sent to the security fence in an apparent cynical attempt to draw Israeli fire, but was spotted by troops who realized what was happening and ensured she was not hurt.
The IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis said the IDF faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. He said the IDF used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence. “All the fatalities were aged 18-30, several of the fatalities were known to us, and at least two of them were members of Hamas commando forces,” he said in a late afternoon statement.
In one incident, the IDF said, two gunmen approached the border and opened fire on troops, prompting return fire. No soldiers were hurt in that or any other incident, the army said.
Manelis warned that a further escalation of violence was possible in the coming days, including the firing of rockets into Israel from Gaza.
The demonstrations marked the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to “all of Palestine,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a speech in Gaza City.
The IDF said some of the Palestinians fired on by the IDF were suspected of trying to place improvised explosive devices along the border fence.
The army confirmed that soldiers had shot at “main instigators.” It said some protesters were lighting tires on fire and throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at IDF troops on the other side of the border. The military maintained that it would not allow Palestinian protesters to “violate Israel’s sovereignty” by crossing the security fence.
The main sites for protests in Gaza included Rafah and Khan Younis in the south, el-Bureij and Gaza City in the center, and Jabalya in the northern portion of the coastal enclave.
Hamas’s military wing instructed its members to urgently donate blood to hospitals in northern Gaza Strip. The terror group claimed there was shortage of blood units due to the large number of Palestinians injured.
Early Friday morning, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli tank fire near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run health ministry said. Witnesses said he was working his land near the border when the shells hit, but Hadashot news reported that the army suspected the man had been trying to place an improvised explosive device near the security fence.
Via social media, leaflets dropped from airplanes and statements to news outlets, Israeli officials had repeatedly warned Palestinians not to try to breach the security fence during the protests.
Early Friday, the army stationed additional infantry battalions and more than 100 snipers along the border in order to prevent that from happening. The Border Police and Israel Police also sent additional forces to southern Israel in order to act as a secondary defense line in case Palestinians made it past the soldiers along the border.
The IDF declared the area around the Israeli side of the Gaza border a “closed military zone,” forbidding Israeli civilians from getting close without army permission.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was leading the army’s riot control operation, with assistance from the head of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, the head of IDF Operations Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
The army said it held the Hamas terror group responsible for any violence along the Gaza security fence during the protests and for the “consequences” of it.
Over the past few days, Palestinians in Gaza pitched tents near the volatile border with Israel ahead of the planned six-week “March of Return” protest that began on Friday.
The protest came amid rising tensions as the United States prepares to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Organizers said the protests would be peaceful but Israeli officials were wary of a fresh flareup along the enclave’s border. Hamas, the key organizer of the campaign, is an Islamist terror group that seeks the destruction of Israel.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned on Friday that any Palestinians from Gaza approaching the security fence with Israel were putting their lives at risk.
“Those who approach the fence today are putting themselves in danger,” Liberman said in his post. “I would advise [Gazans] to go on with your lives and not engage in provocations.”
The first protest kicked off on Friday, when Palestinians worldwide mark Land Day, which commemorates the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover festival.
Camping and protests in Gaza are expected to continue until mid-May, around the time the US is set to inaugurate its new embassy in Jerusalem.
Mid-May will also mark the anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flee their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents are refugees or their descendants.
Friday’s demonstrations mark the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to all of Palestine, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared in a speech at the scene of the mass protests in the Gaza Strip.
“We are here to declare today that our people will not agree to keep the right of return only as a slogan,” he said.
Haniyeh added that the March of Return was also aimed at sending a message to US President Donald Trump to the effect that the Palestinians will not give up their right to Jerusalem and “Palestine.”
Khaled al-Batsh, the leader of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad terror group, which is also among the planners of the protest, said tents would be located 500 meters from the border, just outside the buffer zone between Gaza and Israel.
Water facilities were being installed and medical teams deployed to allow people to stay for long periods.
Organizers said tens of thousands of people would attend Friday’s protest, although it was not clear how the estimate was reached.
Batsh said protesters were calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land that is now inside Israel. “Seventy years ago we left and today we have decided to return to our country,” he told AFP.
At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.
No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.
Khaled Abu Toameh, Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.