Israeli and Palestinian leaders blamed each other for the deaths of at least 16 Palestinians who were part of a mass protest along the Gaza border, with each side lobbing threats of escalating the violence.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was “fully responsible” for killing his countrymen on Friday, and a video appearing to show an unarmed teenager being gunned down by Israeli sniper fire circulated on Palestinian media.
The Israeli army argued that Gazan militants were using civilian protesters as cover as they fired at soldiers and tried to lay explosives near the border fence. The protest, which peaked at 30,000 participants on Friday and will run for the next six weeks, is “an organized terrorist operation,” the Israeli army said in a tweet on Saturday. Hamas said Friday that five of the dead were members of its military wing.
“What we saw yesterday were attempts to launch rockets, attempts to carry out live attacks, Molotov cocktails, attempts to set fire to the security fence, and a lot of terrorist activity,” the Israel Defense Force said in separate tweets. “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed. We are only interested in terrorists who are trying to disrupt Israeli life; we only act against them.”
The Israeli army warned that it would increase its response should the violence continue. Abbas said Palestinians needed international protection from Israel, and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an independent inquiry into Friday’s deaths.
The protests come amid growing tensions over President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as a yet-to-be-released U.S. peace plan that Abbas has already pledged to reject. Abbas severed all official Palestinian contact with the White House in December after Trump announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Hamas planned the protests against the Palestinian displacement resulting from Israel’s founding in 1948 to culminate with the date of U.S. embassy move. The demonstrations began Friday with tent camps set up a half-mile from Gaza’s 25-mile (40-kilometer) frontier with Israel. The climax is to come in mid-May with a mass march to the border, which Israel fears will become an attempt to breach its territory.
Hamas leaders presented the initiative as a peaceful effort, though they conceded that it could get out of hand. The army said riots broke out at five locations along the border. Palestinian eyewitnesses said that in one spot, about 90 people cut through the security fence and confronted soldiers, with many being shot in the legs. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said 16 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,400 injured Friday, while another three Palestinians were hurt in continued skirmishes Saturday.
Violence against Israel has surged in recent weeks. Palestinians, who want the eastern part of Jerusalem as their own capital, have been storming the Gaza fence and planting bombs targeting Israeli soldiers, drawing retaliatory fire and air strikes. At least five Israelis have been killed in stabbing and car-ramming attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent weeks.
Jason Greenblatt, who is helping spearhead the U.S. peace effort, accused Hamas of instigating a “hostile march” to spark a confrontation.
“Hamas should focus instead on desperately needed improvements to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza instead of inciting violence against Israel that only increases hardship and undermines chances for peace,” Greenblatt tweeted.
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, appearing at the tent camps Friday, presented the march as a rebuke to the U.S. peace effort and said it marks the beginning of the Palestinian return to all of what is now Israel.
“The Great March of Return is a message to Trump that his deal and all those who support it, that there is no concession on Jerusalem, no alternative to Palestine, and no solution but to return,” Haniyeh said. The Palestinians “will not agree to keep the ‘Right of Return’ only as a slogan.”
Israel views the demand for a mass return of Palestinians as a bid to eradicate Israel as a Jewish state.
The Gaza protests correspond with red-letter dates on the Palestinian calendar. Friday was “Land Day,” marking the 1976 killing of six Arab citizens by Israeli security forces during demonstrations against land expropriations. It’s also the beginning of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday.
The main march to the fence on May 15 will commemorate the Palestinian “Nakba,” or the catastrophe of their displacement at Israel’s founding. It takes place a day after the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is slated to open, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month that often sees a surge in Palestinian attacks, also begins May 15.