Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border on Friday, burning tires and throwing firebombs and rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas and live fire, the army and witnesses said, as Palestinians held a second “March of Return” protest.
The Palestinian UN ambassador told reporters in New York late Friday that nine Gazans were killed and over 1,000 injured by Israeli fire at the border protests. The IDF, which did not confirm the figures, 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.
Palestinians burned tires, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air; 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 hundreds of people were wounded on Friday, including 293 by live fire. It said 25 of those wounded were in serious condition. Among those hurt were 12 women and 48 minors, the ministry added.
“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.
Witnesses said that Friday’s demonstrations appeared somewhat smaller than the 30,000 participants at last week’s protest. The army assessed that around 20,000 Gazans participated.
One of the dead men was identified as Ussama Khamis Qadih, 38, killed east of Khan Younis. Israel’s Army Radio quoted the IDF saying the fatal incident involving Qadih occurred when the army identified an effort by a large group of people to rush the border fence and that it used live fire to stop them. The report said 20 people were also injured in the attempt.
Other fatalities were identified as Majdi Shabat, 38; Hussein Mohammed Madi, 16; Ibrahim Alur, 19; Sidqi Abu Attiwi, 45; Mohammed al-Haj Saleh, age unknown; and Ala Yahya al-Zamli, 17. Other names, and details regarding the circumstances of their deaths, remained unclear.
“Our forces are using riot disposal means and live fire in accordance with the rules of engagement,” the army said.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Hamas organizers were trying to use protesters as a diversion to “open up the fence and then to insert terrorists into Israel.” Conricus said snipers were used “sparingly” and only against those that pose a “significant threat.”
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.
Hamas gave instructions to its members to cover their faces to make it harder for Israel to identify them, and not to carry their cellphones.
The IDF said that since morning “there were violent protests at five sites along the Gaza border in which hundreds of Palestinians were taking part.”
“Our forces will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure and the fence that protects Israeli citizens,” it said, noting that it had declared the area a closed military zone.
The army posted surveillance footage (below) showing Palestinians trying to set fires and sabotage the fence.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, arriving at one of the demonstration sites, received a hero’s welcome. He was surrounded by hundreds of supporters who chanted, “We are going to Jerusalem, millions of martyrs.”
Sinwar told the crowd that the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” referring to the major Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“We’ve come out today to tell the world that Gaza is free,” he said. “The blockade and the hunger have failed at turning the people of Gaza against the resistance.”
He added: “If we explode, we will explode at the Israeli occupation.
The fresh protests come amid concerns about renewed bloodshed after more than 16 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured by Israeli fire in a mass protest last week.
Thousands of Palestinians were streaming to tent camps along the border. Hundreds arrived before Muslim noon prayers on Friday at one of the tent camps near the border community of Khuzaa.
Israeli forces fired tear gas that landed inside the encampment, causing people to run and push each other to the other side of the camp. The canisters landed where TV live vans were positioned.
A sand berm has been erected in recent days between the fence and the camp for extra protection. A dozen ambulances are parked nearby.
Mohammed Ashour, 20, who had been among the first to set tires on fire, had been shot in the right arm. He rested on a stretcher placed on the ground.
“We came here because we want dignity,” he said before paramedics carried him to an ambulance to be transported to the strip’s main hospital.
Yehia Abu Daqqa, a 20-year-old student, said he had come to demonstrate and honor those killed in previous protests.
“Yes, there is fear,” he said of the risks of advancing toward the fence. “We are here to tell the occupation that we are not weak.”
Friday’s 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.
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.
Israel’s defense minister has warned that protesters approaching the border fence endanger their lives, drawing condemnation from rights groups that said such seemingly broad open-fire rules are unlawful.
A leading Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, issued a rare appeal to Israeli soldiers to refuse any “grossly illegal” orders to fire at unarmed protesters.
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, 29 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 on Saturday 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 on Saturday 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.
Palestinians have pointed to a handful of filmed instances from the demonstration which appeared to show protesters being shot at while posing no threat to IDF troops. The army has claimed such videos are fabricated by Hamas.
Ahead of Friday’s march, Hamas announced it would pay compensation to families of those killed or injured, ranging from $200 to $500 per injury and $3,000 per death.
Late Thursday, activists urged residents over loudspeakers mounted on vans trawling the streets to show up for what they called the “Friday of Tires.”
The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, with the backing of smaller terror groups.
The White House on Thursday called on Palestinians to engage in solely peaceful protests and stay at least 500 meters from Gaza’s border with Israel.
While the UN issued a warning to Israel to use “extreme caution” in facing the mass protests, US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt put the onus squarely on Palestinians.
Greenblatt said protesters “should remain outside the 500-meter buffer zone; and should not approach the border fence in any way or any location.”
He added, in a statement: “We condemn leaders and protestors who call for violence or who send protestors — including children — to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed. Instead, we call for a renewed focus by all parties on finding solutions to the dire humanitarian challenges facing Gazans.”
Earlier on Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Israel to exercise “extreme caution,” and to allow Palestinians to protest peacefully along the border.
Hamas leaders have declared in recent days that they plan “surprises” and that the ultimate goal of the marches is to remove the border and liberate Palestine.
Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return 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.
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.”
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 has generally been 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.
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.