Over 40,000 Palestinians took part in protests at the Gaza border Saturday afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces said, with some rioters throwing grenades and explosives toward the security fence as well as lobbing rocks at troops and burning tires.
The army said soldiers responded with “riot dispersal means” and live fire in accordance with IDF regulations, noting that most Palestinians attending the one-year anniversary of the “March of Return” protests remained at a distance from the border.
The coastal enclave’s Hamas-run health ministry said three Palestinians were killed during the protests, while at least 200 were injured. Most of those hurt were lightly wounded, but three were said to be in critical condition.
The dead Palestinians were 17-year-old Adham Nidal Sakr Amara, who was apparently shot in the head, and another 17-year-old, Tamer Abu Khair, who was shot in the chest. Late on Saturday the ministry said another 17-year-old, Bilal al-Najjar, had succumbed to his wounds after being shot during the protests.
The Hamas-run interior ministry said it had deployed 8,000 security personnel along the border to prevent demonstrators from approaching the fence, Army Radio reported. Channel 12 said this was the first time in a year that Hamas had acted in this way to keep a check on the protests.
But warnings to stay far back from the heavily fortified fence that marks the border were not being heeded by all.
“We will move towards the borders even if we die,” said Yusef Ziyada, 21, his face painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag. “We are not leaving. We are returning to our land.”
Channel 12 news said two boys, aged 8, crossed the border, one of them carrying a knife, and that they were sent back into Gaza.
The report said there were no major attempts to breach the fence and the protests were more of the level of some of the weekly Friday protests this past year, rather than the fiercer riots for which the IDF had been braced.
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Meanwhile, a fire broke out in a farming community in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip on Saturday afternoon. Authorities said they were looking into whether an incendiary balloon launched from the enclave sparked the blaze.
A spokesman for Hamas warned Israel that the terror group would respond if Israel did not honor unspecified “understandings” regarding the border.
“The resistance is ready on the ground and is monitoring Israel’s commitment to the understandings to stop the killing and violence,” Fawzi Barhoum said, according to the Ynet news site.
“If Israel won’t honor this, the resistance is ready to respond and change the equation. Today is a crossroads in our relation to the occupation.”
Senior Hamas official Bassem Naim called Saturday’s protest “a very important message sent from Gaza today to all parties, mainly the Israelis and the international community.
“Gazans today are gathering here, thousands and thousands of people peacefully, to raise their voice against aggression and the imposed siege on Gaza,” he told AFP.
Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar also visited protests in the border area near Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
By early evening most of the protesters had dispersed, while organizers said the weekly events would continue into a second year and resume next Friday.
Earlier on Saturday, Gaza health officials said Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man near the perimeter fence, hours before the mass rally to mark the annual Palestinian Land Day and the one-year anniversary of the start of weekly March of Return border protests.
Mohammed Saad, 21, was killed by Israeli army fire east of Gaza City near the perimeter fence, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said, adding he was hit by shrapnel in the head.
A Gaza hospital worker, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said Saad was a member of the so-called “night disturbance unit.” Such groups routinely burn tires, flash laser lights and detonate explosives near the fence at night to distract soldiers and disturb residents of nearby Israeli communities.
Witnesses said Saad had been taking part in an overnight demonstration when he was hit.
An Israeli army spokesman said about 200 Palestinians “rioted during the night along the fence” and that the army used riot dispersal means against them. There was no further elaboration or comment on Saad’s case.
Egyptian mediators, shuttling between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, have been trying to broker a ceasefire deal that reportedly included proposed arrangements for preventing violence during Saturday’s protest.
On Saturday morning, Israeli troops arrested two Palestinian minors armed with knives attempting to breach the Gaza border fence, the IDF said in a statement. The teens were questioned and returned to the Strip.
Gaza’s health ministry announced Saturday morning that it had completed preparations for the planned protests, with hospitals and ambulances on stand-by ahead of the demonstrations. Field hospitals were set up at various points, and medical facilities in the Strip are on an emergency footing.
Meanwhile, Israel warned Palestinians against approaching or breaching the security fence during Saturday’s border protest. Through phone calls, messages, public statements and pamphlets dropped from aircraft, the IDF has told residents of the Strip that any attempts to break through the border fence will be met with live fire.
The IDF’s Arabic-language spokesman on Saturday appealed directly to Gazans, saying benefits could be in store if they refrain from violence.
“According to Palestinian reports, if you don’t act violently or with terror today, significant measures will be implemented that can improve a variety of civilian fields in the Gaza Strip,” Avichay Adraee wrote on Facebook.
The Israeli military’s primary concern in the March of Return protests is that large groups of people will break through the fence, armed with guns, grenades and knives, and either enter one of the Israeli communities located a few hundred meters from the border and attack those inside, or try to abduct soldiers stationed along the security fence.
Palestinian Land Day marks a 1976 decision by the Israeli government to seize thousands of dunams (acres) of Arab-owned land in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
This year’s Land Day also marks a year since the start of weekly violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border, known as the “March of Return.”
Israel maintains that the Hamas terror group appropriated the campaign for nefarious purposes, using the civilian protesters as cover for violent military activities.
The timing of the anniversary rally is sensitive for both sides.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of ex-army chiefs who have criticized what they say is his failed Gaza policy. He is also coming under attack over his policies from members of his coalition, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has repeatedly called for wider military action in the enclave.
Hamas, meanwhile, faces growing unrest in Gaza, as a result of worsening humanitarian conditions.
Late Friday night, Hamas officials announced that a deal had been reached that would see the protesters refrain from approaching the border fence, in exchange for Israeli concessions. But there was no confirmation from Israel and it was unclear to what extent Hamas can control the protesters.
While demonstrations have taken place at least weekly since March last year, Hamas has been building up the anniversary protests for several months.
The group’s leader Ismail Haniyeh called for a million people to gather across five protest sites, and mosques in Gaza late Friday used loudspeakers to encourage a mass turnout. Palestinian media reported Haniyeh arrived at the border on Saturday afternoon, close to Gaza City.
Egypt has repeatedly tried to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, stepping up efforts in recent days after a Gaza rocket struck a house in central Israel earlier this week, injuring seven Israelis and launching exchanges of fire between the sides.
Palestinians with knowledge of the talks said that as part of the proposed deal, Gaza protesters were to keep away from the fence Saturday and Israeli troops were to hold their fire.
Under the Egyptian plan, Israel was to offer economic incentives for Gaza in exchange for calm, according to Palestinian officials.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.