Gaza protesters burn tires, draw Israeli fire
Khuzaa, Gaza Strip – Thousands of Palestinians protested along Gaza’s sealed border with Israel on Friday, engulfing the volatile area in black smoke from burning tires 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 seven Palestinians and wounding 293 others – 25 of them seriously – in the second mass border protest in a week, Gaza health officials said. Hundreds more suffered other injuries, including tear gas inhalation, the officials said.
The deaths brought to at least 29 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire since last week.
The latest casualties were bound to draw new criticism from rights groups that have branded Israel’s open-fire orders on the border as unlawful, after Israel’s defense minister warned that those approaching the fence were risking their lives.
The U.N. human rights office said Friday that it has indications that Israeli forces used “excessive force” against protesters last week, when 15 Palestinians were killed or later died of wounds sustained 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 Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.
Friday’s large crowds suggested that Hamas, the Islamic 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 that on Friday, protesters hurled several explosive devices and firebombs, using the thick plumes of smoke from burning tires as a cover, and that several attempts to cross the fence were thwarted.
Gaza’s shadowy Hamas strongman, Yehiyeh Sinwar, told a cheering crowd in one of the protest camps Friday that a border breach is 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’ 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.
Friday’s marches began before Muslim noon prayers when thousands of Palestinians streamed to five tent encampments that organizers had set up several hundred meters (yards) 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 tires, engulfing the area in black smoke meant to shield them from Israeli snipers.
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