At least 25 Palestinians were injured in renewed clashes on Saturday along the security fence with Israel, according to Hamas-run Gaza health authorities.
Hundreds of Gazans took part in a second day of protests along different areas near the security fence on Saturday. On Friday, tens of thousands marched to the border with Israel in the largest such demonstration in recent memory, calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land that their ancestors fled from in the 1948 War of Independence. It was dubbed the “March of Return.”
By sundown Friday, Hamas officials said 16 had been killed, including five members of its military wing, and 1,400 injured, more than half by live fire.
The Israeli military, which did not confirm the death toll, said Friday’s protesters threw firebombs and rocks at soldiers, rolled burning tires at them, sought to breach or damage the border fence, and in one incident opened fire.
Friday’s clashes were the deadliest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza War.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Saturday that all those killed were engaged in violence, adding that Gaza health officials exaggerated the number of those wounded and that several dozen at most were injured by live fire while the rest were merely shaken up by tear gas and other riot dispersal means.
Manelis said Friday the army 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.
Hamas, an Islamist terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah in a violent coup in 2007.
In a statement later Saturday, the IDF said its forces faced “violent riots and terror attacks” and that it operated “in strict accordance with the rules of engagement, firing only when necessary and avoiding civilians strategically placed by Hamas in harm’s way.”
Manelis further warned that if violence dragged on along the Gaza border, Israel would expand its reaction to strike the terrorists behind it. The military has thus far restricted its response to those trying to breach its border, but if attacks continue it will go after terrorists “in other places, too,” he said.
Israel “will not allow a massive breach of the fence into Israeli territory,” he said, adding that Hamas and other Gaza terror groups are using protests as a cover for staging attacks. If violence continues, “we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places too,” he said.
Protest organizers have said mass marches would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. Palestinians mark that date as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands left or were forced to leave during the 1948 War of Independence. The vast majority of Gaza’s two million people are their descendants.
The Palestinian Authority declared Saturday a day of mourning for those killed.
Hamas has praised the march and the planned 6-week camp demonstration, with Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh saying on Friday that the protests marked the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to “all of Palestine.”
“We are here to declare today that our people will not agree to keep the ‘right of return’ only as a slogan,” he said.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said in a speech to protesters Friday that “The March of Return… will not stop until we remove this transient border. Friday’s protests, he said, “mark the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and return [of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes inside Israel].”
The “March of Return,” Sinwar added, “affirms that our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine.
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.