GAZA BORDER/GENEVA: Israeli forces shot and hurt at least 40 Palestinian protesters yesterday, as thousands converged on Gaza’s border with Israel and set fire to piles of tyres to launch a second week of demonstrations.
At least 21 Palestinians have died since the demonstrations near the heavily guarded Gaza border fence began last Friday.
Five of yesterday’s wounded were in a critical condition, the Gaza health ministry said.
The latest round of violence came as the UN called on Israel to rein in its security forces at the Gaza border. The human rights office urged Israel to ensure security forces did not use excessive force.
Firearms should only be used as a last resort and unjustified recourse to their use may amount to wilful killing of civilians, a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell said.
Palestinian tent encampments have sprung up a few hundred metres back from the 65km frontier but groups of youths have ventured much closer, rolling tyres and throwing stones at Israeli troops.
The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return to what is now Israel for refugees - and their descendants - from the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation. Refugees comprise most of the 2 million population of Israeli-blockaded Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant movement Hamas.
“I, like everyone around here, am coming to liberate their land,” said 60-year-ol Hekam Kuhail, flashing a V- for-victory sign and having her photo taken near the border.
With tyre smoke and Israeli tear gas rising into the air, Palestinian youths used T-shirts, medical masks and perfume to try to protect themselves.
The Israeli military has stationed sharpshooters on its side of the frontier to deter Palestinians from trying to break through the fence into Israeli territory. Many of those killed were militants, it said.
Most of the dead were killed by Israeli gunfire on the first day of protests a week ago.
The deaths drew international criticism of Israel’s response, which human rights groups said involved live fire against demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life.
Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border and that its troops have been responding with riot dispersal means and fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement”.
An Israeli military spokesperson said yesterday the army “will not allow any breach of the security infrastructure and fence, which protects Israeli civilians”.
Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem urged protesters to keep rallies peaceful. “Maintaining the peaceful nature of the protests will strike all fragile Zionist propaganda."
The Israeli government has ruled out any right of return for Palestinian refugees, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.
The UN has criticised protest organisers. “We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters, including children, to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed,” President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said.