Deadly clashes in Gaza mark start of Palestinian campaign
GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP
Thousands of Palestinians marched to Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday in the largest such demonstration in recent memory, and 15 were killed by Israeli fire on the first day of what Hamas organizers said will be six weeks of daily protests against a stifling border blockade.
It was the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas.
Fourteen of the marchers were killed and more than 750 wounded by Israeli fire in clashes along the border fence, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Another Palestinian was killed earlier Friday.
The Israeli military said thousands of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires toward troops deployed on the other side of the border fence. It accused militants of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of mass protests, saying that in one incident, Palestinian gunmen fired toward soldiers.
The large turnout of the flag-waving marchers in the dangerous border zone was a testament to Hamas’ organizing skills, but it also signaled desperation among Gaza residents after a decade-old border closure. Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.
Israel had threatened a tough response, hoping to deter breaches of the border fence. The Israeli military released video showing a row of snipers perched on a high earthen embankment facing the Gaza crowd in one location.
Israel also used a new means of crowd control Friday – small drones that each dropped several tear gas canisters on protesters below. People quickly scattered when they saw the drones approaching.
The U.N. Security Council began an emergency meeting late Friday to discuss the clashes in Gaza. Called by Kuwait, the session began as a closed-door meeting but evolved into an open discussion.
Friday’s high death toll and prospects of daily protests in coming weeks have raised concerns about another escalation along the volatile frontier. Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas have fought three cross-border wars in recent years.
The protest campaign is meant to spotlight Palestinian demands for a “right of return” to what is now Israel.
A large majority of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.