At least 16 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured by Israeli security forces confronting one of the largest Palestinian demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border in recent years, Gaza medical officials said.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, pressing for a right of return for refugees to what is now Israel, gathered at five locations along the fenced 65-km frontier where tents were erected for a planned six-week protest, local officials said. The Israeli military estimate was 30,000.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza at the request of Kuwait, diplomats said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that Israel was responsible for the violence and declared Saturday a national day of mourning.
Families brought their children to the encampments just a few hundred meters from the Israeli security barrier with the Hamas-run enclave, and football fields were marked in the sand and scout bands played.
But as the day wore on, hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier, where Israeli soldiers across the border kept watch from dirt mound embankments.
The military said its troops had used “riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Some of the demonstrators were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones” at the border fence and at soldiers.
Live fire was used only against people trying to sabotage the border security fence and at least two of the dead were Hamas operatives, an Israeli military official said.
Palestinian health officials said Israeli forces used mostly gunfire against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Two people were killed by tank fire, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Witnesses said the military had deployed a drone over at least one location to drop tear gas.
Gaza health officials said one of the 12 dead was aged 16 and at least 400 people were wounded by live gunfire, while others were struck by rubber bullets or treated for tear gas inhalation.
The Palestinian protest was launched on “Land Day,” an annual commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.
Right of return
But its main focus was a demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
A Palestinian farmer was killed by an Israeli tank shell in the Gaza Strip early on Friday, hours before Palestinians were to stage mass sit-ins along the border with Israel, a health official and a witness said.
Ahead of the protests, called for by Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, Israel’s military said it doubled its standard troop level along the border, deploying snipers, special forces and paramilitary border police units, which specialize in riot control.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians are marching near the Gaza-Israel border on Friday.
Hamas has said that Friday’s activities would be peaceful and the chief Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said Israel wants to avoid violence.
However, previous protests near the border fence have turned deadly, with Israeli soldiers firing live bullets at Palestinians burning tires, throwing stones or hurling firebombs. Manelis said the military will not allow the crowds to breach the fence on Friday or damage military infrastructure.
The sit-ins are seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break a crippling, decade-old Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt that has made it increasingly difficult for the Islamic militant group to govern.
Other tactics over the years, including cross-border wars with Israel and attempts to reconcile with political rival Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank-based Palestinian president, have failed to end Gaza’s isolation.
In the planned protest, Palestinians are setting up tent camps along the border, the first of a series of actions planned in Gaza in the coming weeks.
The activities are to culminate on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation, with a march through the border fence.
Palestinians commemorate the date as the anniversary of their mass displacement and uprooting during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. The vast majority of Gaza residents are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from communities in what is now Israel.
The Palestinian killed Friday was identified as 27-year-old Amr Samour. The Palestinian Health Ministry said he was struck by an Israeli tank shell in the southeastern corner of Gaza.
Yasser Samour, a relative and fellow farmer, said Amr Samour was harvesting parsley before dawn, in hopes of selling it fresh in the market later in the day.
“I was working on the next field,” Samour said. “We heard shelling landing on the field where Amr works. We ran there and found him hit directly with a shell. We were more than kilometer away from the border.”
Another farmer was wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Samour said.
The Israeli military said troops directed tank fire toward two suspects who approached the fence along the southern Gaza Strip and acted suspiciously. It said it is aware of reports of a killed Palestinian.