Four Palestinians were reported killed, one of them a teenager, as approximately 10,000 people took part in mass demonstrations at the Gaza Strip border on Friday afternoon for the 11th week in a row, according to Israeli assessments.
Over 100 people were injured by live fire in clashes along the security fence, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
The military said protesters hurled grenades, improvised explosives and rocks at soldiers, burned tires and flew dozens of incendiary kites and balloons into Israeli territory, sparking a number of fires.
At one point gunmen opened fire at an IDF post in the north of the Strip. There were no Israeli casualties.
In addition to kites and balloons outfitted with pouches of burning fuel — which have become a regular occurrence at protests — the army said it had intercepted a number of airborne explosive devices that were being flown into Israel.
Troops fired tear gas canisters at the mobs of demonstrators. The IDF also confirmed that live rounds were fired in accordance with its rules of engagement.
As of 6:30 p.m., the Hamas-run health ministry reported that 525 people had been injured, eight of them seriously. The majority of people hurt had inhaled tear gas, the army’s primary less-lethal riot dispersal weapon.
According to the Hamas-run health ministry, 117 people were injured by live fire. One man was also hit in the face with a tear gas canister.
AFP said its photographer was among the wounded, having been shot in the leg. Mohammed Abed al-Baba, who has worked for AFP in Gaza since 2000, said he was wearing a clearly identified press vest and helmet around 200 meters (yards) from the border east of Jabaliya in northern Gaza.
Three of those killed were identified by Palestinian officials as Ziad Jad-Allah Abed al-Qader Elbarim, Imad Nabil Abu Darabi and Haytham Muhammad Khalil Aljamal.
According to the health ministry, Aljamal was 15 years old. He was reportedly shot near the security fence, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. The health ministry said Elbarim was also killed east of Khan Younis, and Darabi was shot east of Jabaliya in the north. They were both said to be in their 20s.
The protesters were spread out in five different locations along the border, the army said.
The turnout was far lower than the army had anticipated. On Thursday, a senior officer in the IDF Southern Command said tens of thousands were expected to participate.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted: “The determination and professionalism of IDF soldiers on the Gaza border are proving themselves. Despite the great efforts of Hamas and Iran, less and less terrorists are coming to our border.”
The military accused the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza, of “continuing to use terror against [Israeli] defensive infrastructure and security forces, under the cover of the civilian population.”
A video released by the IDF on Friday showed rioters burning tires, attempting to damage the security fence and throwing explosives across the border.
In one case, troops fired warning shots at several Palestinians attempting to breach the fence in the southern part of the territory, causing them to abandon the attempt.
Ahead of the riots, Israeli forces reportedly identified large piles of tires near Rafah, in southern Gaza, that were being readied for use in the protests to create smokescreens. According to Arabic-language media, the military used drones to ignite the tire piles before the protests began, thus preventing their use later in the day.
Israeli security forces had braced for an expected day of violent protests on the border.
“The IDF is prepared with reinforcements along the Gaza Strip fence to defend the residents of the Gaza periphery and security infrastructure from attempted terror attacks by terror groups led by Hamas,” the army said.
The army was preparing for large-scale confrontations throughout the day, with military reinforcements stationed in multiple positions along the border fence.
The IDF also deployed Iron Dome missile defense systems in the Gaza periphery to counter any rocket attacks from the coastal enclave.
Friday’s riots were a first test for the new head of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who took over the position earlier this week.
Fire-fighting units were also on high alert, alongside teams of volunteer spotters scanning the sky to identify incoming incendiary kites. A senior officer said Thursday that soldiers and volunteers have downed over 500 fire kites using drone technology, with hundreds expected to be launched Friday.
In one case on Friday, an Israeli drone fell inside Gaza after it became entangled in an incoming “fire kite.”
Before noon on Friday, amid a tense wait for the start of the protests, one brushfire near Mefalsim was already blamed by authorities on a kite from Gaza. Additional blazes were later sparked close to the communities of Nahal Oz, Kerem Shalom, Nir Am, and Be’eri, with no injuries reported.
On Thursday evening, Hamas announced that it hoped over 40,000 people would come to the border for the demonstration on the last Friday of Ramadan as part of the annual protests to mark al-Quds Day, so called for the Arabic name for Jerusalem. The day is marked by demonstrations throughout the Muslim world and in some European cities.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that protests at the Gaza border would continue until Jerusalem is “free,” Channel 10 news reported.
Haniyeh also said that Hamas was willing to consider “a genuine initiative that would completely end the siege on Gaza, but not at the expense of the integrity of the Palestinian issue.”
In an English-language column published Thursday on the UK-based Middle East Eye website, whose coverage on Israel is overwhelmingly critical, Haniyeh said the protesters would “bring down the walls” of Gaza’s “huge prison.”
Haniyeh added that if Palestinians can’t gain their “right to freedom, independence, and honorable living” by peaceful means, “it is our right to resist occupation through all possible means, including armed resistance.”
In two months of mass protests at the Gaza border, over 110 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli military fire. Most of the fatalities were members of terror groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have acknowledged. Israel said its troops were defending its border and accused Hamas of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of the protests.
The protests at Israel’s border peaked on May 15, when some 40,000 Gazans protested along the fence and violent clashes took place between troops and Palestinians. The protest came on the same day that the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem.
Following the demonstrations, organizers originally said Naksa Day — which commemorates the Arab loss in the 1967 Six Day War and is marked on June 5 — would be the next large protest.
However, Hamas then attempted to garner support for larger protests on Friday instead — for a demonstration dubbed the “March of a Million to Jerusalem.” The protest was touted as a fresh attempt to breach the border fence en masse, drawing fears of a melee similar to that seen on May 14, when Palestinians burned tires, threw firebombs, tried to cut through the fence, and shot at troops.
In addition to the protests, tens of projectiles have been fired from Gaza into Israel in recent weeks, with Israel often responding with strikes on Hamas targets.
Agencies contributed to this report.