GAZA CITY: Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, spurred on by poverty and a growing sense of hopelessness, answered calls from their leaders Friday to march to the edges of their 140-square-mile territory and face off against the Israeli military.
The day soon turned to bloodshed as Israeli soldiers used live ammunition and tear gas to stop them breaking through the border fence, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds, the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said.
The Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, and other Palestinian factions had called for a peaceful “March of Return” for Land Day, which marks the Israel government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in 1976.
About 30,000 Palestinian demonstrators gathered at several points along the border fence with Israel, according to Israeli army estimates.
While many Palestinians gathered peacefully, picnicking and flying Palestinian flags, some approached the fence to threw stones at the soldiers they see as their jailers. The Israeli military accused others of hurling Molotov cocktails, burning tires and trying to “infiltrate” into Israeli territory and released video of such incidents.
Israel had warned that it would use live ammunition, dropping leaflets cautioning that anyone who came within 300 meters of the fence would be in danger. But some Gazans said they did not care if they died.
“I want to be shot,” said 22-year-old Yahya Abu Assar. “I don’t want this life.”
Palestinian factions have called for protests every day until May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1948, known to Palestinians as the “Naqba” or catastrophe, and Israeli has warned the violence Friday might only be the beginning. The U.S. administration has chosen the anniversary for the opening its new embassy in Jerusalem, and that is expected to add further fuel to demonstrations.
“Every day I’ll be here,” said 18-year-old Noureddine as he left the demonstration, his white shirt soaked with blood. Armed with a slingshot, he declined to give his last name. He said he had been helping to carry out the wounded, including a friend shot in the stomach and another in the leg.
When asked why he risked his life, he said protesting is simply “normal.”
Palestinians in the sealed-off Gaza Strip – 99 percent of whom are denied permission to leave – say life is becoming unlivable. Unemployment among the population of 2 million is estimated to be pushing 50 percent and even higher among Gaza’s youth.
The United Nations has warned Gaza is on the brink of economic collapse and a complete breakdown in services. On Friday night, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session on Gaza developments.
Israel has imposed tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. The border with Egypt has also largely remained closed. There is only electricity for a few hours a day.
The decision by the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital came as another blow to Palestinians, along with the U.S. announcement that it would cut aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides services for Palestinian refugees.
Over the past year, attempts by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to apply pressure on Hamas to cede control have intensified the misery as salaries to employees in Gaza have been sliced. With Hamas under pressure and reconciliation efforts with the Palestinian Authority in tatters, analysts say Hamas is trying to shift the focus away from its inability to provide services to the people.
Israel blames Hamas for the growing crisis, saying it uses resources for tunnel construction and other military purposes instead of investing to improve the lives of civilians.
The demonstrations at times had a festive atmosphere, even as Israeli drones dropped tear gas canisters in an attempt to disperse people and ambulances screamed past with the injured.
“If they don’t open the crossing, we will revolt,” said Abu Ahmed, a 34-year-old Palestinian, standing next to an ice cream stall before running behind an earthen barrier to take cover from flying bullets.
The first death on Friday came in the early hours of the morning when a farmer was hit by a tank shell, the health ministry said. By the end of the day, 1,416 people were injured including 758 by gunshots. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a day of mourning to honor the victims.
Human rights groups said that Israel’s actions – firing on unarmed protesters – were illegal. A spokeswoman for the Israeli military said the live fire was “not random” and was aimed at those trying to break through the fence.
Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, in charge of Israel’s southern command, said there were attempts by Palestinians to carry out “terror attacks” using the demonstrations as cover. “We urge citizens to stay away,” he said. A military spokeswoman said she could not elaborate further on intended terror attacks.
On Friday evening, the Israeli military said there had been a “shooting attack” in northern Gaza, during which two militants fired at Israeli troops. The military said it responded with tank fire and airstrikes. The Gaza health ministry counted two men who died from tank shelling in northern Gaza among those killed.
Citing security reasons, Israel began its blockade of Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007 following a bloody conflict when its rival Fatah refused to give up power after it lost elections. Israel had pulled its troops out of Gaza and dismantled its settlements there in 2005. Since then Israel and Hamas have fought three wars.
“We are here to say we want to return to our land,” said Suheila Abu Rish, 65, who attended the demonstration. She said her family was displaced from Ashdod, now an Israeli city 30 miles north, in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
She said her five sons and three daughters are unable to find work in Gaza and that the family relies on aid from the UNWRA to survive. Roughly two-thirds of Gazans are registered as refugees with the agency.
At a morgue at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the body of 35-year-old Jihad al-Fourina, who had been shot in the neck, was laid out for his family to collect. Relatives wept outside. Local media identified him as a member of Hamas’ armed group, one of at least two people killed who the Israeli military said were affiliated with the group.
“This is the worst situation that Gaza has seen in 70 years,” said Sufian Abu Zaida, a Fatah political official and former minister who was at the demonstrations. Speaking in the morning, he said, “It will be a surprise if we finish the day without tens of injured. They have nothing to lose.” His prediction was far surpassed.