12 Palestinians killed in clashes at Israel-Gaza border

Tear gas being used during the Palestinian tent city protest yesterday at the Israel-Gaza border. Gaza officials said tens of thousands gathered to protest at five locations, while Israel's estimate was 17,000.
Tear gas being used during the Palestinian tent city protest yesterday at the Israel-Gaza border. Gaza officials said tens of thousands gathered to protest at five locations, while Israel's estimate was 17,000.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hundreds injured by Israeli troops at protest, with most struck by gunfire, say Gaza medics

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER • At least 12 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.

One of the dead was aged 16 and most of the casualties were struck by gunfire, according to Palestinian medics, who estimated the number wounded at around 500 by mid-afternoon yesterday.

The Israeli military said that its troops had used "riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators", and that some of the demonstrators were "rolling burning tyres and hurling stones" at the border fence and at soldiers.

Palestinian health officials said that Israeli forces used mostly gunfire against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had used a drone in at least one location to drop tear gas.

The Palestinian protest marked 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.

The demonstrators demanded that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages from which their families had fled, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Tensions ran high at the start of the long-planned tent protest that began on Good Friday and the start of the Jewish Passover and is scheduled to last for six weeks. Israeli security forces are customarily on high alert during holidays, with tighter restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

Palestinian health officials said that Israeli forces used mostly gunfire against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had used a drone in at least one location to drop tear gas.

There were also small protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But the main focus was Gaza, from which Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005 after 38 years. The Gaza Strip is now ruled by the Islamist Hamas group and blockaded by Israel.

Gaza officials said tens of thousands of protesters gathered at five locations along the 65km, largely desert frontier with Israel. The Israeli military's estimate was 17,000.

Families took their children to camps just a few hundred metres from the border fence, with football fields marked out in the sand, and scout bands playing.

But hundreds of Palestinian youth ignored calls from the organisers and from the Israeli military to keep away, increasing the risk of confrontation with Israeli troops who had taken up positions on the other side of the fence.

In a statement, the Israeli military accused Hamas of "cynically exploiting women and children, sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives".

The military said that more than 100 army sharpshooters had been deployed in the area and earth-moving vehicles piled up dirt mounds to stop any attempt to breach the barrier.

Major-General Eyal Zamir, head of Israel's Southern Command, said his forces had identified "attempts to carry out terror attacks under the camouflage of riots".

Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, had earlier urged protesters to adhere to the "peaceful nature" of the protest.

In Gaza, an impoverished, densely populated enclave, the protest was dubbed "The March of Return" and some of the tents bore names of the refugees' original villages in what is now Israel, written in Arabic and Hebrew alike.

Eighty-year-old Mansi Nassar walked towards the sensitive frontier with the aid of his cane, disregarding entreaties to remain 700m from the barrier.

"I was born in Beit Darras inside Palestine and I will accept no less than returning to it," he said, referring to his former home village just south of the modern Israeli city of Ashdod. The village no longer exists.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline '12 Palestinians killed in clashes at Israel-Gaza border'. Print Edition | Subscribe