More than 100 Palestinians were reported wounded in violent clashes on Friday afternoon as thousands of demonstrators protested close to the fence, burning tires and throwing rocks at Israeli military positions along the Gaza border.
The violence came despite calls from Hamas leaders and warnings from the IDF to keep the Friday protests peaceful and to stay away from the border fence.
However, Israeli defense officials said it was the quietest protests since the “March of Return” began on March 30. According to their estimations, Hamas may have stationed armed men close to the fence to try to minimize the violence, the Ynet news site reported.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 130 Palestinians were hurt, including 77 hit by live fire.
The IDF said that protesters broke through the fence in three locations before immediately returning to the coastal enclave, with Israeli soldiers opening fire at the suspects in one case.
In addition, an IDF aircraft opened fire at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons at Israel from the southern Gaza Strip, the army said. There were no immediate reports of injuries from the airstrike.
Thousands of protesters are said to have attended the demonstration. The IDF sent text messages on Friday to residents of the coastal enclave, warning them not to approach the fence, Palestinians said.
The violence broke out despite one of the main organizers of the protests calling on participants on Thursday night to behave nonviolently in the demonstration, following a flareup between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group that threatened to spark all-out war.
“The most important message tomorrow is the masses gathering in a peaceful manner,” Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and an organizer of the march, wrote in a statement.
“The March of Return is continuing until its goals are attained, with an emphasis on the importance of holding marches that will be non-violent and led by the people,” he wrote.
Al-Batsh also called on participants not to give Israeli snipers a reason to open fire at them.
Daoud Shehab, another member of the organizing committee of the marches, said officials were encouraging protesters to stay away from the border fence. But he said he was not sure to what extent they would succeed in “restraining the public mood.”
“There will be attempts to prevent them from approaching the fence. There might be a reduction of [incendiary] balloons,” he said. “We hope there will be no human losses tomorrow. We are giving a chance to the Egyptian efforts.”
According to reports, Egypt had warned Hamas that renewed protests would bring a heavy Israeli response.
In his statement, al-Batsh also thanked the Egyptian military intelligence delegation for its work bringing about a limited ceasefire with Israel on Wednesday and Thursday.
He also said the delegation was due to visit the Gaza Strip again the following week to continue the negotiation efforts.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.
The Israeli military was on high alert Friday ahead of the clashes expected for the afternoon and evening, coming two days after a rocket with a 20-kilogram (44-pound) warhead exploded outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba early Wednesday morning, causing significant damage, but no injuries as the mother inside had rushed her children to their bomb shelter moments before.
A second rocket also landed in the sea, off the coast of the greater Tel Aviv area, known in Israel as Gush Dan.
In response, the Israeli Air Force conducted strikes against some 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including a border-crossing attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory from the Palestinian city of Khan Younis.
On Thursday, Israel’s top-level security cabinet instructed the army to take a wait-and-see approach to allow mediation efforts to succeed, but also ordered the military to step up reprisal attacks should there be border violence.
Ministers said the IDF should ultimately adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward rocket attacks, arson balloons and rioting along the Israeli border, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
The army may also look to tamp down on border riots by entering areas where it previously stayed away from, according to Channel 10 news.
Israel has demanded an end to the weekly confrontations, as well as the frequent launches of incendiary balloons into Israeli territory.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, only the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have access to the type of rockets fired on Wednesday morning.
The terror groups, however, denied responsibility for the launch, condemning those who carried it out as “irresponsible” and said they threatened to undermine an Egyptian-led effort to reach a negotiated armistice with Israel in exchange for certain economic incentives.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Thursday warned Israeli leaders not to make a mistake and misread their intentions, while ordering a probe into how a missile was launched from the Strip at Beersheba.
Experts have surmised a freak lightning strike may also be to blame for the launches, as a bolt was found to have struck near where the rockets were being stored.pla
Even prior to the rocket attack, tensions along the border had been rising, with a rising clamor of calls within Israel for military action to stop incessant balloon attacks and border riots.
Last Friday, some 14,000 Palestinians thronged to the perimeter fence, burning tires and throwing rocks, firebombs and grenades at soldiers on the other side.
Some 20 Palestinians breached the border during the riots, and seven Palestinians were killed, including four who the military said had entered Israel and approached a military position. Israel responded by cutting off Qatari-funded fuel shipments meant to ease a chronic electricity shortage.