Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank participated in mass rallies on Wednesday marking the 71st anniversary of what they call the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” surrounding the establishment of Israel.
In Gaza, the IDF said at least 10,000 people flocked to the border between Israel and the coastal enclave at several locations. It said protests included rioting.
“The rioters are setting tires on fire and hurling rocks,” the army said. “A number of explosive devices have been hurled within the Gaza Strip, as well, and a number of attempts have been made to damage the security fence. IDF troops are responding with riot dispersal means.”
Hamas officers with batons patrolled the border, preventing some Palestinians from reaching the security fence.
Around 60 Palestinians in Gaza were wounded to varying degrees throughout the day, the Hamas-run health ministry said in a message to reporters. Most of these injuries were due to Israeli tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, but some were reportedly caused by Hamas security officers.
Several balloon-borne incendiary devices landed in southern Israel, where they sparked at least nine blazes, according to area firefighters.
In a speech at the border area, senior Hamas official Fathi Hammad, known for his fiery rhetoric, warned Israel that “The day of your slaughter, extermination and demise is approaching.
“We came to tell the Zionist enemy, its men, army, government and Knesset: ‘Go away from us,'” he said.
“All of you should look for a place in Europe…hell, the sea, the ocean or the Bermuda Triangle. There is no place for all of you in Palestine. There is no place for you in the land of Jerusalem. There is no place for you in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre or any place.”
By 4 p.m. the Israeli military said Palestinians had already begun leaving the border area, far earlier than expected. According to an IDF spokesperson, protesters had started retreating from the border throughout Gaza, though he said the riots were not yet over.
In Ramallah in the central West Bank, hundreds of people marched from the grave of the late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat to a rally downtown, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to lands that are now a part of Israel.
Sirens also wailed across the West Bank at noon in an expression of sadness.
The Nakba refers to the displacement and dispossession that Palestinians experienced during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-1949. Palestinians annually commemorate it on May 15.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes during the war, including many who sought refuge in neighboring countries.
For more than a year, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in regular protests along the frontier, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state. The protests have included many acts of violence against Israeli security forces, and have seen at least 200 Palestinians killed.
Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.
A day before Nakba commemorations in 2018, Israeli security forces killed more than 60 Palestinians at a violent protest in the border region, which coincided with a ceremony marking the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. The IDF said Palestinians at that protest attempted to sabotage the fence between Israel and Gaza, threw firebombs and rocks at soldiers and committed other violent acts. Israel said 53 of the dead were members of terror groups.
Wednesday’s protest in Gaza comes two weeks after Israel and terror groups in the Strip reached a ceasefire, ending a fierce two-day round of fighting.