Palestinians Killed in Clashes With Israel at Gaza Border

Updated on
  • Israel, Palestinian militants exchange fire near border
  • Six-week protest intended to dramatize Palestinians’ plight

A view from across the border from the Gaza strip shows Palestinians participating in a tent city protest on March 30. 

Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

A mass protest of thousands of Palestinians along Gaza’s border with Israel, billed as peaceful by its Hamas organizers, erupted in violence Friday, with at least 16 Palestinians killed and several hundred wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Friday marks the beginning of six weeks of protests Hamas has planned against Israel and the Palestinian displacement surrounding its 1948 creation. The demonstrations began Friday with tent camps set up a half-mile from Gaza’s 25-mile (40-kilometer) frontier with Israel; the climax is to come in mid-May with a mass march to the border that Israel fears will become an attempt to breach its territory.

Hamas leaders presented the initiative as a peaceful effort, though they readily conceded it might get out of hand. It did just that within hours on Friday, as demonstrators threw rocks and firebombs and rolled burning tires at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

The Israeli army, which put the crowd size at more than 20,000, said riots broke out at five locations along the border, and Army Radio reported that some 900 Palestinians were demonstrating in solidarity in the West Bank. Sixteen Palestinians were killed on Friday while more than 1,400 were injured, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. The army spokesman said militants approached the fence from the northern Gaza border and fired at Israeli soldiers, prompting the army to fire back and target three additional Hamas sites.

Earlier, the army said militants tried to plant explosives along the border under cover of the protests and in one case sent a seven-year-old girl to the fence in an apparent attempt to draw Israeli fire, but soldiers understood what was happening and returned the girl to her parents.

The protests come amid growing tensions over President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as a yet-to-be-released U.S. peace plan that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has already pledged to reject. Abbas severed all official Palestinian contact with the White House in December after Trump announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. In a message Friday, Abbas announced a day of national mourning on Saturday.

The United Nations Security Council plans to hold an emergency meeting regarding Gaza on Friday night following a request made by Kuwait, according to Palestinian envoy to the United Nations Riyad Mansour. Abbas asked the international body to protect the Palestinian people against Israeli “aggression.”

‘Hostile March’

Violence against Israel has surged in recent weeks. Palestinians, who demand the eastern part of Jerusalem as their own capital, have been storming the Gaza fence and planting bombs targeting Israeli soldiers, drawing retaliatory fire and air strikes. Palestinians broke through the fence on at least four occasions this week, including one group armed with knives and grenades that penetrated more than 10 miles inside Israel before being apprehended. At least five Israelis have been killed in stabbing and car-ramming attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent weeks.

Jason Greenblatt, who is helping spearhead the U.S. peace effort, accused Hamas of instigating a “hostile march” to spark a confrontation.

“Hamas should focus instead on desperately needed improvements to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza instead of inciting violence against Israel that only increases hardship & undermines chances for peace,” Greenblatt tweeted.

‘Right of Return’

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, appearing at the tent camps Friday, presented the march as a rebuke to the U.S. peace effort, and said it marks the beginning of the Palestinian return to all of what is now Israel.

“The Great March of Return is a message to Trump that his deal and all those who support it, that there is no concession on Jerusalem, no alternative to Palestine, and no solution but to return,” Haniyeh said. The Palestinians “will not agree to keep the ‘Right of Return’ only as a slogan.”

Israel sees the demand for a mass return of Palestinians as a bid to eradicate Israel as a Jewish state.

Season of Protest

The Gaza protests correspond with red-letter dates on the Palestinian calendar. Friday is “Land Day,” marking the 1976 killing of six Arab citizens by Israeli security forces during violent demonstrations against land expropriations. It also marks the beginning of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday.

The main march to the fence on May 15 will commemorate the Palestinian “Nakba,” or the catastrophe of their displacement at Israel’s founding. It takes place a day after the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is slated to open, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month that often sees a surge in Palestinian attacks, also is anticipated to begin May 15.

Israeli officials had braced for the effort to turn violent, while Palestinian supporters of the march said they hoped to capitalize on those optics. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Friday that Hamas was playing with Palestinians’ lives, and urged Gazans to stay at home.

“Whoever approaches the fence today is putting himself in danger,” he tweeted in Arabic.

(Updates casualty numbers in first and fourth paragraphs, adds more details.)
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