Some 3,000 Palestinians protested along the Gaza border with Israel on Friday, burning tires and flying flaming kites across the frontier to set Israeli fields ablaze, witnesses and the army said. Soldiers responded with tear gas and live fire, killing four Palestinians, including a 15-year-old, according to the Hamas run-health ministry.
Ahmad Abu Aqel, 25, was shot east of Jabaliya in northern Gaza, health ministry spokesman, Ashraf al-Qudra, said. It also said a 24-year-old and 29-year-old and a 15-year-old boy were killed, but did not provide details on their identity.
Israel’s army said it was looking into the incidents.
In all the Gaza ministry said that some 445 people were injured, including 96 from live fire.
These brought to 39 the number of fatalities from the border demonstrations and clashes dubbed the March of Return, which took place for the fourth time Friday, according to the health ministry figures. The numbers could not be verified by Israel.
Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
Huge black plumes of smoke from the blazing tires engulfed the area, as Israeli troops fired tear gas and live bullets, witnesses said.
Hundreds were clashing with Israeli forces, an AFP correspondent said.
Thousands of Gazans were gathered at various locations along the border in the enclave, calling for tends of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to be able to “return” to their former lands in what is now Israel, some burning tires or flying kites with flaming rags dangling from their tails.
The kites are part of a new tactic aimed at setting fields on the Israeli side on fire. Most kites were stitched together in the colors of the Palestinian flag. One white kite bore the swastika.
Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of the Hamas-ruled strip, which Israel says is needed to prevent Hamas importing weaponry. An Islamist terror group which seeks to destroy Israel, Hamas says the weekly protests are ultimately aimed at erasing the border and liberating Palestine.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman toured the Gaza area, meeting with the troops.
“Thanks to the IDF’s activity, week by week there is a drop in the number of participants in the riots,” he said, praising the soldiers.
The IDF estimated that 3,000 people were taking part, significantly smaller than the 10,000 at last Friday’s demonstration. In the two weeks before, there were an estimated 20,000 and 30,000 protesters, respectively.
“Since the morning there have been violent riots at five sites along the border in which about 3,000 people are taking part,” the IDF said. “They are trying to approach the security barrier, burning tires next to it and trying to send over kites that have burning items attached.”
“Several kites crossed into Israel and were extinguished as needed. IDF troops are responding with riot dispersal means and live fire in accordance with the rules of engagement,” the army said.
Earlier, Israeli military aircraft dropped leaflets near the Gaza border warning Palestinians to keep away from the fence separating the coastal enclave from Israel, the IDF said.
That followed reports Wednesday that despite Egyptian pressure on Hamas and other Palestinian groups to halt the mass protests, organizers said they would move protest camps 50 meters closer to the border.
The National Forum for the March of Return, one of several Palestinian groups behind the weekly demonstrations, said that the decision came to “affirm our right to return” — a reference to the Palestinian demand that Israel allow tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants to return to their former homes inside Israel. Such a demand would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state.
The 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.