BRUSSELS, Belgium — The EU’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini on Saturday called for an independent investigation into the use of live ammunition by Israel’s military following clashes in Gaza on Friday that left 15 Palestinians dead, according to Gaza authorities.
Among the dead were five gunmen from Hamas’s military wing, the ruling terror group in Gaza acknowledged Saturday.
In a statement on Saturday, the IDF said its forces faced “violent riots and terror attacks” on Friday 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.”
The Israeli military said the Palestinian 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.
“The EU mourns the loss of life. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims,” Mogherini said in a statement a day after the clashes, which also left hundreds wounded. According to Hamas officials, over 1,000 were injured Friday, some by live rounds.
“The use of live ammunition should, in particular, be part of an independent and transparent investigation,” she said.
“Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected,” added Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister who speaks on behalf of the European Union’s 28 member states.
Friday’s major protest — the conflict’s worst single day of violence since the 2014 Gaza war — saw tens of thousands of demonstrators, including women and children, gather at multiple sites along the security fence with Israel, 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.”
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.
Gaza’s protest organizers have said mass marches would continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, and when the US is expected to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, a move that has provoked deep anger among the Palestinians, who see the city’s annexed eastern sector of the city as the capital of a future state.
Palestinians mark May 15 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 EU call for a probe echoed UN chief Antonio Guterres who also called for an “independent and transparent investigation.”
The EU is the biggest donor to the Palestinians and has spoken out against US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Palestinian Authority declared Saturday a day of mourning for those killed.
Hamas 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.