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By ISABEL KERSHNER and IYAD ABUHEWEILAMARCH 30, 2018
Israeli soldiers shot tear gas across the border with Gaza on Friday as Palestinians gathered for demonstrations expected to last six weeks. CreditJack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
JERUSALEM — What was billed as a six-week campaign of peaceful protests in Gaza, culminating in a mass march toward Israel, descended almost immediately into chaos and bloodshed on Friday, with at least eight Palestinians reported killed by Israeli soldiers in confrontations along the border fence.
Soon after the campaign began Friday morning, the Israeli military reported that Palestinian protesters were rioting in six locations along the border, rolling burning tires and hurling stones at the fence and at Israeli soldiers beyond it. Later, it reported that Molotov cocktails were thrown at soldiers.
By late afternoon, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said that eight Palestinians had been killed by Israeli fire, and more than 1,000 injured.
Declaring the area surrounding the Gaza Strip a closed military zone, the Israeli military said it was “responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Israeli forces fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The Palestinian organizers had called for peaceful protests, referred to as the Great March of Return, or the March of the Million, with men, women and children bused to tent encampments that popped up in recent days about 700 yards from the border with Israel. About 20,000 demonstrators came to the tent encampments, but most appeared to have stayed well away from the border fence and did not engage in violence.
The idea was to protest Israel’s more than decade-long blockade of Gaza, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal territory, and which Israel calls a security imperative, as well as to highlight Palestinian demands for a right of return to the lands that became Israel 70 years ago. A majority of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees of the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s creation, or their descendants.
Girding for violence, Israel had almost doubled its forces along the border, deploying snipers, special units and drones, and warning that it would act to prevent any breach of the border fence or violation of Israel’s sovereignty.
Protesters carrying a wounded man near the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday. CreditKhalil Hamra/Associated Press
The idea for the border encampments, in about half a dozen locations, was initiated by a Gazan social-media activist, Ahmed Abu Artema, a political independent.
It was adopted by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza and is known for its armed resistance, which promoted the protest on its social media platforms and urged Palestinians to participate.
“Our will in achieving the actual return to our lands is more powerful than jet fighters and a gun,” Mr. Abu Artema said by phone on Friday as he was on his way to the protest. “This march is rightful and will not be used and exploited for political agendas.”
For Israel, the prospect of unarmed mass protests posed the challenge of trying to maintain deterrence by threatening harsh measures, while also trying to avoid mass civilian casualties. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, warned in a statement that any shoot-to-kill policy against unarmed demonstrators would be unlawful, unless the soldiers’ lives were threatened.
Muslims at Friday Prayer at one of the tent cities set up for the demonstrations. CreditMohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Before the larger clashes broke out, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza reported that a Palestinian man, a farmer, was killed near the border zone early Friday by Israeli artillery fire — one of the five it reported dead later in the day. Describing the incident, the Israeli military said one of its tanks had fired on two Palestinians who approached the border and were “acting suspiciously.”
“We are raising the flags of peace and have nothing to harm the enemy,” said Hamed Jundiya, 63, an educational supervisor who erected his tent a few hundred yards from the border fence. Gazans are desperate, he said, “living without work, electricity and open borders.”
Another protester, Mohammad Obaid, 18, took a more militant stand, saying that holding a Palestinian flag in one hand and a rock in the other would be enough to get him killed by an Israeli soldier. “We can bring back our lands with the power of guns and weapons, not with a march, a stone or a knife,” he said.
With Gaza’s economy collapsing, fears of an explosive response have mounted. In recent years, first Egypt and then the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank joined Israel in squeezing Gaza financially.
Relatives of Omar Samour, a 27-year-old Palestinian farmer who was killed by Israeli tank fire, mourning on Friday. CreditSaid Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Even before the protests started, Israel had started a campaign holding Hamas responsible for any violence. Israel’s hard-line defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned Gazans to keep away from the border in a post on Twitter written in Arabic.
“The Hamas leadership is risking your lives,” he wrote. “I advise you to get on with your normal everyday lives and not to participate in the provocation.”
The protest came at a particularly charged time, as Jews prepared for the start of the Passover holiday on Friday, and as Palestinians observed Land Day. The day commemorates the events of March 30, 1976, when Israeli security forces shot and killed six Arab citizens of Israel during protests over the state’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in northern Israel.
The Gaza protest is billed to reach its peak on May 15, when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe, the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence and the 1948 war in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes through flight and expulsion.
Setting up a large tent in preparation for the demonstrations on Thursday. CreditAdel Hana/Associated Press
This year, May 15 is expected to be particularly explosive. It comes a day after the planned move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step that has provoked international criticism and Palestinian outrage, and it coincides with the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
Organizers of the border protest had hoped to create an almost festival-like atmosphere to attract families, setting up portable washrooms and providing free food, water and Wi-Fi.
But tensions in Gaza were building up for weeks. Palestinian militants have planted explosives along the border, and individuals have cut through the fence, some armed with knives and grenades, and set fire to Israeli military equipment, apparently testing Israeli preparedness and putting local communities on edge.
The protest feeds on Palestinian anger over the long blockade and the failing reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, the rival, mainstream movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority holds sway in parts of the West Bank.
Palestinians are protesting the more than a decade-long economic blockade of Gaza by Israel, and to demand a right of return for Palestinian refugees to the lands that became Israel 70 years ago. CreditMohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Abbas, whose forces were routed from Gaza during factional violence in 2007, has vowed to tighten economic sanctions on the enclave, where most of the population lives in poverty and lacks such basics as regular electricity.
Hamas appeared eager to direct Gazan anger toward Israel.
“The memory of Land Day renews in our consciousness the power of blood, which bled like a waterfall to defend the land, and which erupted like a volcano in the face of the occupiers,” Hamas said in a statement.
Israel has fought three wars in Gaza over the past decade and has invested heavily in combating the threat posed by rockets fired by Hamas and other militant groups, and from tunnels crossing under the border.
Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, described Hamas as “an organization in crisis” and accused its commanders of hiding behind women and children.
“This is not Scouts summer camp,” he said of the border encampment in a radio interview on Thursday. “It’s a battle zone.”
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza. Ibrahim El-Mughraby contributed reporting from Gaza.
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