Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was “fully responsible” for deadly clashes that left at least 15 Gazans killed and over 1,000 more wounded amid violent clashes with IDF troops along the security fence Friday.
In a speech broadcast on Palestine TV, Abbas said he has asked the United Nations to immediately work toward providing protection for the “defenseless” Palestinians. “The large number of martyrs and injured in peaceful demonstrations affirms the need for the international community to intervene to provide protection for our people,” Abbas said.
Friday’s clashes marked the bloodiest day since the 2014 Gaza war, kicking off what Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers envision as a campaign of mass sit-ins along the border, meant to spotlight the demand of uprooted Palestinians and their descendants to “return” to what is now Israel.
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.
The army said it estimated some 30,000 demonstrators took part in the protests throughout Friday, with some Gazans throwing firebombs and rocks at troops and rolling burning tires toward soldiers. In numerous cases, it also said, there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence.
The violence appeared to die down after sundown, but the army said it was remaining on high alert amid fears of persisting attacks, including infiltration attempts and rocket fire. Tanks and jets bombed Hamas sites in the early evening, after two Gazans opened fire on troops, the IDF said.
“This severe shooting attack is further proof that the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip use these violent riots in order to camouflage terror,” the IDF said in a statement, hours after a top general said terrorists were using the protests as cover for carrying out attacks.
Israeli security forces also used a drone to fire tear gas toward those along the border from overhead in one of the first uses of the device, a police spokesman said.
Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, as did Turkey.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry confirmed 15 people killed during the day-long violence. Another 1,416 people were injured, including 758 from live fire, according to the ministry. The death toll included a farmer killed in early morning shelling. Palestinians said he was working his land, but Israel said troops directed tank fire toward suspicious figures on the border.
The army did not confirm the death tell. It did confirm that soldiers had shot at “main instigators.” The military maintained that it would not allow Palestinian protesters to “violate Israel’s sovereignty” by crossing the security fence.
‘Demand protection for Palestinians’
Abbas’s office said the Palestinian leader had decided to declare Saturday a “day of national mourning.”
Abbas instructed the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riad Mansour, to “take the necessary measures to demand international protection for the Palestinians,” said a statement released by the PA president’s office in Ramallah on Friday.
The PA Ministry of Information accused Israel of targeting “peaceful” marches with live ammunition and said this was proof of the need to provide international protection for the Palestinians.
The ministry praised Palestinians for heeding calls to take part in demonstrations marking the 42nd anniversary of Land Day in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
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 7-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.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said that the “global conscious must acknowledge that history will ultimately stand with the rights of peoples, and land is at the core of these rights.”
Erekat offered condolences to the families of the Palestinians killed by the IDF during Friday’s riots: “We mourn the martyrs of our great people, and we tell their families that our people shall not surrender.”
Hamas praises large turnout
While Fatah supported the protests, which included much smaller demonstrations in the West Bank, Hamas was a key organizer, along with several other Palestinian groups.
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.
The launch of the protests came as Palestinians marked Land Day, commemorating the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised the turnout.
“The large crowds … reflect the Palestinian people’s determination to achieve the right of return and break the siege and no force can stop this right,” he said.
Friday’s actions were to be the first in a series of protests planned in Gaza in coming weeks. The protests are to culminate on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation, with a march from Gaza, controlled by terror group Hamas, through the border fence. Hamas seeks to destroy Israel.
Palestinians commemorate May 14 as the anniversary of their mass displacement and uprooting during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. Many Gaza residents are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from communities in what is now Israel.
Israel’s military said ahead of Friday’s protests that it doubled its standard troop level along the border, deploying snipers, special forces and paramilitary border police units, which specialize in riot control.
Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, which includes the border, said Friday that “we are identifying attempts to carry out terror attacks under the camouflage of riots.”
He urged Gaza residents to stay away from the border, and held Hamas responsible for any violence there.
Hope for a ‘breakthrough’
Previous protests near the border fence in recent months have turned deadly, with Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition at Palestinians burning tires, throwing stones or hurling firebombs. In recent months, a number of bombs planted along the border, apparently planted during the chaos of the weekly demonstrations, have targeted troops, raising concerns over those approaching the fence.
The “March of Return” protest is different from normal demonstrations 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 were to be handed out on Friday, organizers said.
A young couple were married near one of the camps on Thursday evening.
On Friday, buses took protesters to the border area. By noon, thousands had arrived at the encampments.
At one encampment, east of Gaza City, people clustered around the tents. An unpaved road linking the tents and the border fence was filled with people walking in both directions. People ran for cover from time to time to escape tear gas.
Ghanem Abdelal, 50, distributed water bottles to family members sitting on a mat near one of the tents. He said he hoped the protest “will bring a breakthrough, an improvement, to our life in Gaza.”
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s supreme leader, visited the tents, along with Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar.
Saeed Juniya had erected a small tent a few hundred meters 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.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees and the protest is calling for them to be allowed to return to land that is now Israel.
Washington’s plans to launch 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 labelled the protest an “organized planned provocation” and reiterated “Israel’s right to defend its sovereignty and protect its citizens.”
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.