Around 30,000 Palestinians rallied throughout the Gaza Strip on Friday during the "March of Return," a series of mass protests along the Israel-Gaza border. At least 15 Palestinians have been killed and dozens wounded during clashes with Israeli soldiers over several hours, after a number of protesters threw stones and firebombs toward soldiers stationed along the fence.
A senior United Nations official told the Security Council on Friday that the situation in Gaza "might deteriorate in the coming days" and called for civilians, particularly children, not be targeted.
"Israel must uphold its responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law. Lethal force should only be used as a last resort with any resulting fatalities properly investigated by the authorities," UN deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun said.
In a separate incident, the Israeli military exchanged fire with two armed Palestinians who approached the border fence and opened fire toward Israeli soldiers. The IDF targeted three Hamas positions with tank fire and Israel Air Force fighter jets in response.
The Israeli military declared the area along the border a closed military zone, responding with live ammunition and other riot control methods in hopes of dispersing the protests. The army has also fired artillery at Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions in the Strip.
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According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 1,416 people were wounded: 758 from live fire, 148 from rubber-tipped bullets, 422 from inhaling tear gas and 88 from other causes. Palestinian officials said that one was killed and 237 wounded in Rafah; four were killed and 345 wounded in southern Gaza; five were killed and 286 wounded in northern Gaza; two were killed and 197 wounded in central Gaza; and three were killed and 351 wounded in Khan Yunis.
The "March of Return" marks Land Day, a day Palestinians worldwide have commemorated since 1976, when Israeli security forces shot dead six Israeli Arabs who were protesting the expropriation of Arab-owned land in northern Israel to build Jewish communities. About 100 others were wounded and hundreds were arrested during the protest on March 30 of that year.
Backed by the Hamas government in Gaza, Palestinians have established several tent camps housing thousands near the border. Thousands of Palestinians will camp out near the fence as an extended protest until Nakba Day in mid-May, with weekly demonstrations on Fridays.
IDF chief spokesperson Ronen Manelis said that the event has not concluded, adding that "their intention is to continue this is in the hours, days and weeks to come."
Manelis added that the military used discretion when using live fire, adding that all the Palestinian fatalities were men between the ages of 18 and 30. He noted that several of the fatalities identified with Hamas, one of whom was considered a central figure in the organization."
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is in southern Israel to monitor the situation on the ground, as nearly 900 Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank today in a parallel demonstration to the Gaza march. The protests, which the Israeli army contained using riot control measures, were mostly in central West Bank cities, such as Ramallah and Hebron, though the IDF said that there were protests in other parts of the West Bank as well. According to the Red Crescent, 27 Palestinians were wounded during clashes near Nablus.
Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir said that Hamas was attempting to carry out attacks under the guise of demonstrations, adding that "We recommend to civilians not to come near [the fence], and warn Hamas that it is responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip with all its consequences."
Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League condemned Israel for what they termed excessive force against demonstrators. The committee organizing the march appealed to the United Nations and Arab League to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate what they call Israel's excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators. They added that demonstrations will continue on Saturday in memory of those killed on Friday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Saturday will be a day of mourning in the Palestinian territories. He added that he holds Israel fully responsible for the deaths and asked for the UN to provide protection for Palestinian demonstrators.
The Palestinian casualties, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and local media, have so far been identified as: Mahmoud Saudi Rachmi, 33, killed by gunfire in eastern Gaza; Jihad Faranh, 34, killed in eastern Gaza; Mohammed Kamal al-Nagar, 25, killed in Jabalia; Mahmoud Abu Maomar, 27, killed during clashes in Rafah; Iyad Abed Al-el; Ahmed Ibrahim Odeh, 19, killed by gunfire in the northern Gaza Strip; Abed al-Qader al-Khawajri, 42; and Abdullah Abu Hajir, 25.
Haaretz reported that a seven-year-old girl was sent to the border fence by Hamas. According to the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, the military made sure she was safely returned to her parents.
In a statement, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said "The IDF deployed large numbers of troops in advance and is prepared to act in different scenarios. We will not allow a violation of Israel’s sovereignty or an attack on the infrastructures defending the fence.”
Prior to the demonstrations, Omar Wahid Samur, a 27-year-old Palestinian farmer, was killed by Israeli tank fire early Friday morning near the town of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. Another was critically wounded at the same time by an Israeli tank shell, according to Hamas-run media. In a separate incident earlier Friday morning, the Israeli army fired at two suspects in the northern Gaza Strip, according to the IDF.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke to marchers in the eastern Gaza Strip. “The Palestinian people have proved time after time that they can take the initiative and do great things. This march is the beginning of the return to all of Palestine.”
Haniyeh said they will not compromise and there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a return to “the entire land of Palestine.”
“This march sends a message that the Palestinian people are united against the occupation and against the blockade and against the concessions and against the suspicious deals,” Haniyeh added.
Israel's ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said Friday that the "peaceful march" has turned out to be a violent and organized terror campaign whose sole purpose is to increase violence and provoke.
Danon called on security council members to condemn Hamas and added: "Today we saw how Hamas exploits small children by sending them to the border and endangering their lives. The international community must not be deceived by Hamas and its attempts to conceal crimes."
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote to Gaza residents in Arabic on his official Twitter account Friday morning ahead of the mass Gaza protests.
"The leadership of Hamas is playing with your lives. Anyone who comes close to the [border] fence today puts himself at risk. I suggest to you to continue your lives and not participate in a provocation,” Lieberman warned.
Over the last few days the IDF has warned that it would open fire on anyone who tries to breach the border fence and enter Israel. The IDF has brought a brigade, snipers and soldiers from various courses, to help local troops deal with Friday’s demonstration. The snipers have been instructed to shoot demonstrators who breach the fence.