Deadly clashes broke out on Friday afternoon along the Israeli-Gaza border after Israeli security forces killed at least seven Palestinians and injured up to 500, where as previewed yesterday, a series of massive protests took place along the security fence surrounding the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip.
Thousands had gathered along the border for a six week-long “Great Return” protest when the violence broke out. IDF troops fired live rounds, rubber-coated steel pellets and tear gas at the protesters during the ongoing violence.
The first protest kicked off on Friday, when Palestinians worldwide mark Land Day, which commemorates the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed.
The Israel Defense Forces estimated that 17,000 Palestinians were taking part in the demonstrations, and focused at five main protest sites where rioters reportedly threw petrol bombs and stones at troops, and burned tires.
“We have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters, who were called up from all of the military’s units, primarily from the special forces,” Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said, Ynet news reports. “If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire.”
In a statement reported by Israeli Kan TV, the army said organizers of the protests were deliberately trying to place civilians in harm’s way, and cited an incident in which it said a seven-year-old girl was sent to the security fence in an apparent cynical attempt to draw Israeli fire, but was spotted by troops who realized what was happening and ensured she was not hurt.
Meanwhile, a Hamas official warned that there will be a reaction to any Israeli provocations.
“We don’t want to see a bloodbath. Just a quiet protest,” he said to Israel Hayom, warning that “if there are Israeli provocations and if Israel deliberately harms protesters or our people we will mount a harsh response.” Hamas had said that as many as 100,000 Palestinians will take part in Friday’s massive demonstration.
The protest also coincides with the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which regularly leads to increased tensions in the already-volatile region.
The six week-long demonstrations are calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. The protests are set to culminate in May as Israel celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, which Palestinians call Nakba (castastrophe) day.
The IDF declared the area around the Israeli side of the Gaza border a “closed military zone,” forbidding Israeli civilians from getting close without army permission. According to the Times of Israel, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was leading the army’s riot control operation, with assistance from the head of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, the head of IDF Operations Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
The army said it held the Hamas terror group responsible for any violence along the Gaza security fence during the protests and for the “consequences” of it.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned on Friday that any Palestinians from Gaza approaching the security fence with Israel were putting their lives at risk. “Those who approach the fence today are putting themselves in danger,” Liberman said in his post. “I would advise [Gazans] to go on with your lives and not engage in provocations.”
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Friday’s demonstrations mark the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to all of Palestine, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared in a speech at the scene of the mass protests in the Gaza Strip.
“We are here to declare today that our people will not agree to keep the right of return only as a slogan,” he said and added that the March of Return was also aimed at sending a message to US President Donald Trump to the effect that the Palestinians will not give up their right to Jerusalem and “Palestine.”
Previously Palestinians have also 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.
Khaled al-Batsh, the leader of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad group, which is also among the planners of the protest, said tents would be located 500 meters from the border, just outside the buffer zone between Gaza and Israel. The protest comes amid rising tensions as the United States prepares to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.