Fifty-eight Palestinians were killed Monday in violent clashes with Israeli forces along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Palestinians said, in a burst of bloodshed that cast a cloud over Israel’s festive inauguration of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem.
It was the deadliest day in Gaza since the devastating cross-border war between the territory’s Hamas rulers and Israel in 2014.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,700 were wounded in the violence, amid the biggest riots and rallies in a weeks-long campaign of protests against Israel, known collectively as the “March of Return.” Earlier in the night, it put the death toll at 55.
The Israel Defense Forces said around 40,000 Gazans were demonstrating in 12 locations along the border at the riots’ peak. It said thousands more were gathered at points several hundred meters from the fence.
At around 4 p.m., the time that the US was inaugurating its embassy in Jerusalem, military sources said Hamas-spurred groups were trying to breach the border at several spots along the Gaza fence.
The army said three of those killed were trying to plant explosives at the border fence. In three separate incidents, Palestinian gunmen opened fire at Israeli troops, according to the IDF. There were no injuries among the soldiers.
In one case in the northern Strip, the troops fired back directly. In another case farther south, an IDF tank responded to the shots fired by destroying a nearby Hamas position, the army said.
In addition, the military said Israeli aircraft conducted a total of 12 strikes inside the Gaza Strip throughout the day, in response to attacks on troops by Palestinian rioters.
“A short while ago, an IAF fighter jet struck five terrorist targets in a military training facility belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the northern Gaza Strip,” the army said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“The IDF operates with determination in order to prevent massive terror activities constantly being led by the Hamas terror organization in. Each act of terror will be met with a harsh response,” the army said.
Hamas said spurring violent clashes
Military sources accused Hamas of attempting to spark a major new, long-term uprising against Israel, extending to the West Bank.
Israeli intelligence officials said earlier Monday that Hamas gunmen were tending to stay away from the border during the protests, ready to burst through into Israel and carry out terror attacks if the fence was breached.
Gaza protesters set tires on fire, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air at several spots along the border, while the military said protesters assaulted the border fence and hurled rocks at soldiers.
Numerous fires broke out in agricultural fields near Israeli communities, sparked by kites laden with containers of burning fuel flown from Gaza into Israeli territory. Firefighters were called to fight the blazes. But many farmers did not wait for help and worked to put out the conflagrations themselves, tilling the soil around the fires in order to starve out the flames.
There were no reports of injuries inside Israel or immediate calculations of how many acres of farmland had been burned.
Hadashot TV broadcast what it said was a new Hamas video, which featured Hebrew subtitles, in which young Gaza children were shown saying they would be “returning to our homeland.” The unsourced TV report said Hamas had been telling Gazans who die in the violence that they will be guaranteed a place in paradise. It said women were prominent among the protesters.
The channel reported that Hamas leaders had said they were seeking to grab control of even a small part of Israeli territory, even for a brief moment, in order to claim a symbolic victory and the start of a “return” en route to liberate Palestine. The channel did not say what Hamas leader had expressed these sentiments.
Hadashot news said the Palestinian Authority was encouraging the protests, including by showing the Gaza border clashes on television in a live feed.
In the West Bank, several thousand people gathered in the center of Ramallah, while hundreds marched to the Qalandiya crossing on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where protesters threw stones at Israeli troops.
The IDF said it was using less-lethal weapons to push back the Gaza demonstrators, as well as live fire in specific cases.
A soldier was hospitalized with light injuries after being struck by a rock.
Israel said ahead of Monday’s protests that Hamas was planning to breach the Gaza border fence and “massacre” Israelis, and that it would stop a possible border breach at all costs, warning protesters that they were putting their own lives in peril.
“On Monday May 14th, the Hamas terrorist organization plans to send armed terrorists, among 250,000 violent rioters to swarm and breach Israel’s border with Gaza and enter Israeli communities,” the IDF warned in an English language video. “Hamas plans to carry out a massacre in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces will not let them.”
שידור חי מגבול עזה: אלפים מפגינים כנגד העברת השגרירות. לכל העדכונים: http://bit.ly/2wNmnTd
Posted by וואלה! חדשות on Monday, 14 May 2018
The protests come as part of the “March of Return” demonstrations along the Gaza security fence. Israel was braced for more than 100,000 Palestinians to take part on Monday, and potentially as many as 200,000. That kind of turnout would indicate a major victory for the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza and has co-opted for its own ends what were originally slated to be weeks of nonviolent protests.
The Shin Bet security service on Monday said Hamas, with funding from Iran, was encouraging border violence by civilians, particularly children and teens to serve as cover for potential armed attacks by the group. The agency cited interrogations of captured Hams operatives.
Protester Mohammed Hamami, 40, said the demonstrations were a “message to Israel and its allies that we will never give up on our land.” Most Gaza residents are descendants of refugees from the Israel’s 1948 Independence War. Israel withdrew all troops and civilians from Gaza in 2005. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, seized control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority two years later. Its leaders say the marches and protests are designed to erase the border and “liberate Palestine.”
Near Gaza City, hundreds gathered about 150 meters from the fence. An AP reporter witnessed two people being shot in the legs.
Bilal Fasayfes, 31, was getting on a free bus to the border with his wife and two children in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis. “If half the people die we won’t care,” he said. “We will keep going so the other half can live with dignity.”
Also in Khan Younis, groups of masked young men, some carrying wooden bats, walked between shops, forcing them to close to respect a general strike.
Muataz al-Najjar, 18, who said he was wounded four times in the last seven weeks, once from a bullet and the others from gas canisters, said he hoped to break through the fence. “We will return and the move of the embassy from Tel Aviv will be prevented,” he claimed.
At Shifa Hospital, where doctors say they are running low on crucial supplies and being forced to discharge patients early to make space for the next wave, a large tent was established outside in front of the emergency room. At mosques in the cities, large speakers were set up that are expected to broadcast messages encouraging people to go to the border.
Israeli military aircraft dropped leaflets over the Gaza Strip early Monday morning warning Palestinians to keep away from the fence separating the coastal enclave from Israel, the IDF said.
“IDF jets once again distributed leaflets warning against approaching the security fence, attempting to sabotage it or to carry out terror attacks,” the army’s spokesperson office tweeted.
The Arabic leaflets also told residents of the coastal enclave that Hamas was endangering their lives.
“Hamas is trying to hide its many failures by endangering your lives,” the leaflets said. “At the same time, Hamas is stealing your money and using it to dig tunnels at your expense.”
A few minutes ago, IDF jets once again distributed leaflets warning against approaching the security fence, attempting to sabotage it or to carry out terror attacks pic.twitter.com/dJcBcUYiiz
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) May 14, 2018
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Gazans Monday to keep away from the protests. “I suggest to the residents of Gaza: Do not be blinded by [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar, who sends your children to sacrifice their lives without hope,” he tweeted. “We will protect our citizens by all means necessary and will not allow the fence to be breached.”
The army fired at and ignited piles of tires prepared by demonstrators near the border, Hadashot news reported, in order to burn them prematurely and prevent demonstrators from using them later to create a smokescreen.
The army’s primary fear during the expected riots is that dozens or hundreds of Palestinians, including Hamas members, will manage to break through the Gaza security fence and wreak havoc in one of the Israeli communities on the other side, attacking residents, starting fires, and destroying buildings.
The military believes Hamas will focus its energies on this style of mass, chaotic attack, but the IDF is also preparing for more direct armed combat, including attacks on troops along the border, or kidnappings of IDF soldiers, as has happened along the Gaza border in years past.
The IDF has dispatched two additional brigades to take positions along the Gaza border ahead of the anticipated riots. Additional soldiers have also been deployed to provide extra security to Israeli communities near the Gaza border.
Protesters on Sunday were heard chanting “Death to America,” according to a video released by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research institute.
Gazans Protest Transfer of U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem with Chants of "Death to America" – Scenes from Gaza "Return March" pic.twitter.com/6UlMCMmkJL
— MEMRI (@MEMRIReports) May 14, 2018
The past seven Fridays have seen thousands of Gazans taking part in the “March of Return” rallies.
During these violent protests, Palestinians hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at IDF troops, roll burning tires at the security fence or try to pull it down with chains. Bombs have been detonated against troops as well. Increasingly, demonstrators have been flying kites laden with containers of burning fuel to start fires in Israel.
Military Intelligence does not believe that Hamas is currently interested in war, but expects that the coming days may see significant violence at the Gaza border.
According to Israeli military assessments, Hamas is in dire straits, facing the most significant pressure since it seized control of Gaza over a decade ago. The terror organization sees the “March of Return” riots as a way to buy time.
The “March of Return” gets its name from the “right of return” demanded by millions of Palestinians to go back to their ancestral villages in today’s Israel, something no Israeli government would accept, as it would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Monday’s deaths brought to nearly 70 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers firing from across the border fence since mass border protests began in late March. More than 2,000 Gaza residents have been wounded in that time by Israeli fire. Hamas acknowledged that five of its terrorists were among the fatalities after the first Friday demonstration, but has since refrained from acknowledging whether its men are among the dead. Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups. Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, damage to the fence, and attacks.
Initially, the IDF believed that the protests would reach their peak with Nakba Day on Tuesday, but Military Intelligence assessments now indicate that Hamas will seek to piggyback on the event of Monday’s US Embassy move in order to draw international attention to their cause.
The Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories unit said Sunday that Hamas has recently taken steps to increase the stress on Gaza residents, most recently by barring Gaza fisherman from working beginning on Monday.
But more dramatically, during the latest border protests on Friday, the COGAT officer said Hamas members directed rioters to destroy and set fire to key parts of the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the main, often sole, passage for commercial goods and humanitarian aid into and out of the Gaza Strip. Gas lines were trashed and tens of millions of shekels of damage was caused.
Judah Ari Gross and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.