GAZA STRIP Thousands of Palestinians protested along Gaza’s sealed border with Israel yesterday, engulfing the volatile area in black smoke from burning tyres to try to block the view of Israeli snipers, and cheering a Hamas strongman who pledged that the border fence will eventually fall.
Israeli troops opened fire from across the border, killing at least nine Palestinians and wounding 491 others – 33 of them seriously – in the second mass border protest in a week, Gaza health officials said. A well-known Palestinian journalist was among the dead, and hundreds of others suffered other injuries, including tear gas inhalation, the officials said.
The deaths brought to at least 31 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire since last week.
Health officials confirmed that journalist Yasser Murtaga had died from a gunshot wound suffered while covering the demonstrations near the Israeli border in Khuzaa. The area was the scene of large protests, and was covered in thick black smoke.
Murtaga was over 100m from the border, wearing a flak jacket marked ‘‘Press’’ and holding his camera, when he was shot in an exposed area just below the armpit.
The Israeli military has said it fired only at ‘‘instigators’’ involved in attacks on soldiers or the border fence. It had no immediate comment.
Murtaga worked for Ain media, a TV production company that has done projects, including aerial drone video, for foreign media.
Rights groups have branded Israel’s open-fire orders on the border as unlawful, after Israel’s defence minister warned that those approaching the fence were risking their lives.
The United Nations human rights office said yesterday it had indications that Israeli forces used ‘‘excessive force’’ against protesters last week, when 15 Palestinians were killed or later died of wounds suffered near the border.
An Israeli military spokesman defended the rules of engagement. ‘‘If they are actively attacking the fence, if they are throwing a molotov cocktail that is within striking distance of Israeli troops or similar activities, then those persons, those rioters, become, may become, a target,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus.
Yesterday’s large crowds suggested that Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has ruled Gaza since a 2007 takeover, might be able to keep the momentum going in the next few weeks.
Hamas has called for a series of protests until May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding, when Palestinians commemorate their mass uprooting during the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.
Israel has alleged that Hamas is using the mass marches as a cover for attacking the border fence, and has vowed to prevent a breach at all costs.
The military said protesters yesterday hurled several explosive devices and firebombs, using the thick plumes of smoke from burning tyres as cover, and that several attempts to cross the fence were thwarted.
Gaza’s shadowy Hamas strongman, Yehiyeh Sinwar, told a cheering crowd at one of the protest camps that a border breach was coming.
The world should ‘‘wait for our great move, when we penetrate the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa’’, Sinwar said, referring to the major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem. He was interrupted several times by the crowd, who chanted, ‘‘We are going to Jerusalem, millions of martyrs!’’ and ‘‘God bless you Sinwar!’’.
The mass protests are perhaps Hamas’s last chance to break a border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, without having to succumb to demands that it disarm. The blockade has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. It has also devastated Gaza’s economy, made it virtually impossible for people to enter and exit the territory, and left residents with just a few hours of electricity a day.
Israel argues that Hamas could have ended the suffering of Gaza’s 2 million people by disarming and renouncing violence.
Yesterday’s marches began before Muslim noon prayers, when thousands of Palestinians streamed into five tent encampments that organisers had set up several hundred metres from the border fence.
In one camp near the border community of Khuzaa, smaller groups of activists moved closer to the fence after the prayers. Demonstrators torched large piles of tyres. Israeli troops on the other side of the fence responded with live fire, tear gas, rubbercoated steel pellets and water cannon.
After the first tyres started burning, several young men with gunshot wounds began arriving at a field clinic at the camp.
Mohammed Ashour, 20, who had been among the first to set tyres on fire, was shot in the right arm. ‘‘We came here because we want dignity,’’ he said, resting on a stretcher before paramedics transported him to the strip’s main hospital.
Yehia Abu Daqqa, a 20-year-old student, said he had come to honour those killed in previous protests.
‘‘Yes, there is fear,’’ he said of the risks of advancing toward the fence. ‘‘We are here to tell the occupation that we are not weak.’’
The death toll since last week includes at least 22 civilians killed during the yesterday’s two protests at the border, as well as one killed during a protest on Wednesday. The six other deaths include three Palestinian gunmen killed in what Israel said were attempts to attack the border fence, and three men who were struck by Israeli tank fire.
More than 1000 people suffered a range of injuries, including those hit by live fire and those overcome by tear gas, the Gaza health ministry said. Twelve women and 48 minors were among those hurt, the officials said.
At the United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint.
He said UN Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov had been in touch with Israeli and Palestinian officials to reinforce ‘‘the need to allow people to demonstrate peacefully.’’ Mladenov stressed the need to ensure that ‘‘excessive force is not used, and the need to ensure that children are not deliberately put in harm’s way’’.
For a second week in a row, the United States blocked a UN Security Council statement supporting the right of Palestinians to demonstrate peacefully and endorsing Guterres’ call for an independent investigation into the deadly protests in Gaza. Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour said that 14 of the 15 council nations agreed to the statement, but the US, Israel’s closest ally, objected.
A White House envoy urged Palestinians to stay away from the fence.
Hamas has billed the final protest, set for May 15, as the ‘‘Great March of Return’’ of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, implying that they could try to enter Israel.
Two-thirds of Gaza’s residents are descendants of refugees. Palestinians commemorate May 15 as their ‘‘nakba,’’ or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted from homes in what is now Israel. AP
Palestinian protesters chant slogans next to burning tyres during clashes with Israeli troops east of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip yesterday. Palestinians torched piles of tyres near Gaza’s border with Israel, sending huge plumes of black smoke into...