At least 16 people were killed and over a thousand reported injured during the first day of a planned six-week protest by Palestinians along the Gaza border with Israel.
According to the health ministry in Gaza, 16-year-old Ahmed Ouda was among those shot and killed on Friday by Israeli forces. Two other men – identified as Mohammed Abu Amar and Mohammed Abu Muammar – were shot in separate incidents with Israeli forces. Mohammed Najjar, 25, was shot in the stomach east of Jabalia in the northern part of the Gaza strip and later died, AFP reported. A 33-year-old, Jihad Farina, was killed after being shot east of Gaza City. Mahmoud Rahmi, also 33, was shot near the border. In total, 16 people were reported killed, the health ministry said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said over 1,100 people were injured, many by live fire.
Overnight, a farmer was reported killed by tank fire as he worked in a field near the buffer zone, the stretch of militarized land between Gaza and Israel where troops can open fire on people believed to be attempting to cross the border.
The Israeli military said the tank fire opened fire after “two suspects approached the security fence … and began operating suspiciously.”
Videos posted on social media appeared to show young men shot in non-combat situations, including one who was hit while praying, and another who seemingly was walking away from the Israeli line.
The IDF did not respond to a request for comment on the deaths, but IDF spokesperson Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis told The Jerusalem Post that all of the people killed were young men.
Friday was the first day of a planned 45-day “March of Return” protest leading up to May 15 – Nakba Day, the date Palestinians mark their displacement from their lands in what is now Israel. The protests also fall around the ceremonial opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on May 14.
Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to warn of a “dangerous effort by Palestinian leaders to create conflict by orchestrating a series of mass confrontations.”
Seventy percent of the 1.9 million people in Gaza are refugees or the descendents of people expelled from their homes after the state of Israel was established. The demonstration is intended to demand the right of return for refugees.
“The Palestinian history is full of such stories, people who knew that they would be killed in a moment, went and protest and stand opposite the Israeli army,” said Fatima, a teacher in Gaza. She did not attend Friday’s march.
“Today Gazans went to say to the world that we have lands there in Israel and they believe that we will go back one day. That’s the real reason why they are there,” she told The Defense Post.
According to one of the organizers, Hasan al-Kurd, protesters are planning to set up camps between 700-1,000 meters from the fence, outside the army’s buffer zone, 972 Magazine reported earlier this week.
AFP reported that 10,000 people turned out for the first day of protests, while a source in Gaza who attended a march told The Defense Post the number was closer to 15,000.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a series of Twitter posts that it was prepared to respond to the protests.
“17,000 Palestinians are rioting in 5 locations along the Gaza Strip security fence. The rioters are rolling burning tires and hurling firebombs & rocks at the security fence & IDF troops, who are responding w riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators,” the IDF tweeted.
“With a reinforcement of troops, the IDF is prepared to respond to the violent riots planned throughout the Gaza Strip, if necessary.”
Update: 17,000 Palestinians are rioting in 5 locations along the Gaza Strip security fence. The rioters are rolling burning tires and hurling firebombs & rocks at the security fence & IDF troops, who are responding w riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) March 30, 2018
IDF Southern Command chief Major General Eyal Zamir said there had been attempts to use the protests to mask attacks along the border. Israel’s Channel 10 reported the IDF as saying it was using snipers to prevent people from placing improvised explosive devices near the security fence.
Hassan Shoaap, who attended the protest near Rafah, said he saw “many Israeli tanks and warplanes” during the demonstration.
Shoaap said he wasn’t afraid of the IDF’s statement. “I have lived three wars in Gaza. I saw death with my eyes,” the 28-year-old told The Defense Post.
The IDF said Hamas had sent a 7-year-old girl across the border, but she was identified and returned to her family.
Israel has blamed Hamas for planning an uprising and plotting to disturb the border during the planned six-week protest. On Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the march was organized in a deliberate attempt to provoke a violent confrontation with Israel.
Videos posted by photojournalist Walid Mahmoud and photos on social media showed tear gas fired at the protesters, who included women and children.
Shoaap said his elderly father and brother also attended the protest. Asked if his family was worried for his safety, he said: “No. My father told me to go.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 30 at 1513 GMT with more background on the protest’s aims and additional comments, and at 0859 on March 31 to update number of people killed and include additional media.