Thousands of Palestinians, some burning Israeli flags and torching tires, staged a mass protest on Gaza’s sealed border with Israel for a third consecutive Friday, as part of a pressure campaign to break a decade-old blockade of their territory.
Israeli live fire from across the border fence killed a 28-year-old Palestinian man and wounded at least 223, Gaza health officials said.
The death brought to 28 the number of protesters killed in two weeks, with more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli fire since March 30, they said.
The marches have been organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, but large turnouts on two preceding Fridays were also driven by desperation among the territory’s 2 million residents who have been enduring a crippling border closure by Israel and Egypt since 2007.
“We want to live like everyone else in the world,” said 37-year-old construction worker Omar Hamada, an unemployed father of eight. “We came here so the world can see us and know that life here is miserable, and that there should be a solution.”
On Friday, the turnout seemed to be significantly lower than on previous Fridays — some 10,000 protesters according to the Israeli military — raising questions about the organizers’ goal of keeping the mass marches going until mid-May.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said that 969 people were hurt Friday, including 223 by live fire and the rest by tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets or shrapnel. Fifteen of the wounded were in serious conditions, including a Gaza journalist. The count also included 67 minors and 20 women, health officials said.
Rights groups have described the Israeli military’s open-fire regulations as unlawful, saying they permit soldiers to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.
Israel has accused Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers of using the protests as a cover for attacks and says snipers only target the main “instigators.”
On Friday, most of the demonstrators assembled at five tent camps located several hundred meters (yards) from the border fence.
Smaller groups moved closer to the fence, throwing stones, torching tires and burning large Israeli flags, U.S. flags, as well as posters of Israel’s prime minister and defense minister. Large plumes of black smoke from burning tires rose into the sky.
Israeli forces fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and live rounds. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said that Palestinians repeatedly tried to damage the border fence, throwing several explosives and fire bombs at it.
Footage distributed by the military showed an area of the fence made up of several layers of barbed wire coils. Protesters stuck a Palestinian flag into the fence and affixed a rope, using it to tug at the coils. One man threw a burning tire into the fence, while another was seen walking nearby with the help of a crutch.
Gaza has endured a border blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas overran the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections.
The blockade has driven Gaza deeper into poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and electricity available for less than five hours a day.
The marchers are protesting against the blockade, but are also asserting what they say is a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about whether they plan an eventual mass breach of the border fence. The protests are to culminate in a large rally on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation. Palestinians mourn the event as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.
Several thousand people gathered Friday at one of the tent camps, east of Gaza City. The camp was decked out in Palestinian flags. At the entrance, organizers had laid a large Israeli flag on the ground for protesters to step on.
Hamada, the construction worker, was critical of Hamas, saying the group has set back Gaza by decades, but added that “this is the reality and we have to deal with it.”
Critics argue that Hamas’ refusal to disarm is a key reason for the continued blockade. One path toward lifting the blockade would be to have Hamas’ political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, take over the Gaza government, but recent Egypt-led talks on such a deal appear to have run aground.
The debate over Israel’s open-fire regulations has intensified with a rising number of dead and wounded since the first protests on March 30.
In all, 35 Palestinians were killed in the past two weeks, 28 during protests. Seven were killed in other circumstances, including six militants engaged in apparent attempts to carry out attacks or infiltrate Israel.
The Israeli military has argued that Gaza militant groups are trying to turn the border area into a combat zone, and said it has a right to defend its sovereign border.
Conricus said Friday that the military is trying to minimize Palestinian casualties, but hadn’t changed open-fire regulations.
Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party, called Hamas a “despicable terror organization” and accused it of exploiting civilians. He said the Israeli military is “operating against it (Hamas) with determination and according to international law.”
Human rights groups have reiterated that soldiers can only use lethal force if they face an apparent imminent threat to their lives.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Friday that open-fire policy must not be dictated by worst case scenarios, such as a feared mass breach of the border. “An order to open live fire at unarmed protesters is manifestly unlawful,” it said.
Another Israeli group, Breaking The Silence, published a statement by five former snipers in the Israeli military who said they were “filled with shame and sorrow” over the recent incidents in Gaza.
“Instructing snipers to shoot to kill unarmed demonstrators who pose no danger to human life, is another product of the occupation and military rule over millions of Palestinian people, as well as of our country’s callous leadership, and derailed moral path,” said the statement.
The group has been criticized in Israel for publishing often anonymous testimony by current or former Israeli soldiers who have misgivings about their military service and treatment of Palestinians.
The five ex-snipers in Friday’s statement were identified by name.