As thousands of Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza border on Friday, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, speaking before protesters, warned that the Strip was ready to “explode in the face of the occupation.”
He said the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” referring to the major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.
Arriving at one of the demonstration sites, Sinwar received a hero’s welcome. He was surrounded by hundreds of supporters who chanted, “We are going to Jerusalem, millions of martyrs.”
Friday’s violent demonstration was the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border, burning tires and throwing firebombs and rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas and live fire, the army and witnesses said.
Hamas said seven Gazans were killed by Israeli fire as of 8:30 p.m. The IDF said it thwarted multiple efforts to breach the border fence — and that it used live fire to do so in some instances — as well as attempts to activate bombs against the troops under the cover of smoke.
“Rioters have attempted to damage and cross the security fence under the cover of smoke from their burning tires. They also attempted to carry out terror attacks and hurl explosive devices and firebombs,” the IDF said on Friday evening. “Our forces prevented breaches” of the fence.
Sinwar said his terror group was “following in the path of martyr Yasser Arafat in resisting the enemy” and that the “conspiracy of besieging the Gaza Strip, with the hope that its residents would revolt against Hamas, has failed.
“They thought that by putting pressure on the Gaza Strip, the masses would revolt against the Palestinian resistance,” he said.
“They thought the people would launch an uprising against the tunnels and the rockets and the commandos [belonging to Hamas’s military wing]. They thought that if the Gaza Strip is starved, it would give up its principles and would abandon the project of liberation and return.”
Sinwar said that Friday’s demonstrators along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, the second of their kind in the past week, “have come out to say that this is the enemy that is besieging us, and that if we explode we will explode in its face.”
The Gaza Strip, he continued, will not starve and will not give up its principles. “If Gaza explodes, it will explode in the face of the occupation,” he added, referring to Israel.
Another senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said during a similar visit to the protest sites that the demonstrations would continue until the Palestinians return to “all of Palestine.”
“We will not make any concessions even if the whole world conspires against us,” Zahar said.
Gaza leaders have planned a series of marches culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation.
Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and said it will prevent a breach of the fence at all costs.
On Friday around 20,000 people took part in the demonstrations. Palestinians were burning tires, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air, and others threw Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli soldiers over the border fence, who responded with tear gas and live fire, witnesses said.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said on Friday afternoon that three men were killed and 200 people were injured, five of them in serious condition. The figures could not be independently confirmed.
“Our forces are using riot disposal means and live fire in accordance with the rules of engagement,” the army said.
Israel and Hamas had geared up for another showdown on the border with the IDF deploying snipers and tanks ahead of the expected mass protest, and Palestinians stockpiling thousands of tires which they burned in late morning and through the afternoon. The IDF was using smoke dispersal measures, Army Radio said.
Last Friday, over 30,000 Gaza residents participated in mass demonstrations, many gathering in five tent encampments that had been set up from north to south along the narrow coastal strip’s border with Israel, each at a distance of about several hundred meters from the fence. Smaller groups, mostly young men, rushed forward, throwing stones, hurling firebombs or burning tires and drawing Israeli fire. Two were killed after opening fire on Israeli troops, Israel said, while others tried to breach or bomb the border fence.
In all, 23 Palestinians were killed in Gaza over the past week, most of them last Friday, according to Gaza health officials. This includes a 30-year-old and an 18-year-old who died on Friday of injuries sustained last week, the officials said. Israel has no official death toll figures.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said that all those killed last Friday were engaged in violence. He said the army had faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence, and that Israeli soldiers had used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence.
The IDF named and detailed 10 of the dead as members of terror groups including Hamas. (Hamas had earlier acknowledged five of them were its members.) Islamic Jihad later claimed an 11th.
Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said on Thursday that the Palestinians will continue their “struggle until they achieve their freedom and restore all their lands.” He said that the Palestinians’ “right to all of the soil of Palestine was absolute and clear.”
An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.
AP contributed to this report.