The head of Israel’s Southern Command accused terror groups Friday of trying to carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians during a day of Hamas-encouraged protests along the Gaza security fence.
“We have identified attempts to carry out terror attacks using the protests as cover,” said Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir in a statement.
“We encourage civilians not to approach the fence and we are sending an official warning to Hamas, which is responsible for everything that happens in the Strip and the consequences thereof,” he added.
Channel 10 reported that IDF snipers fired at several Palestinians suspected of trying to place explosives along the fence on Friday afternoon.
Sixteen Palestinians were killed, and over 1,100 were wounded by Israeli tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry said.
The army estimated that 30,000 Palestinians were taking part in the “March of Return” demonstrations along the Gaza border, focused at six main protest sites where rioters threw firebombs and stones at troops and burned tires.
Violent protesters were setting tires on fire and throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border, according to the IDF.
Over the past few days, Palestinians in Gaza pitched tents near the border ahead of the planned six-week “March of Return” protest that began on Friday.
The protest came amid rising tensions as the United States prepares to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Organizers said the protests would be peaceful but Israeli officials were wary of a fresh flareup along the enclave’s border. Hamas, the key organizer of the campaign, is an Islamist terror group that seeks the destruction of Israel.
The first protest kicked off when Palestinians worldwide mark Land Day, which commemorates the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover festival.
Protests in Gaza are expected to continue until mid-May, around the time the US is set to inaugurate its new embassy in Jerusalem.
Mid-May will also mark the anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flee their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents are refugees or their descendants.
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.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.