Palestinian authorities have announced a day of national mourning after 16 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces during protests commemorating Palestine’s so-called Land Day and called for a strike.
Friday’s Land Day marches, which embodied the demand of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to be allowed to return to their homeland, saw 16 Palestinians killed when Israeli troops opened live fire on the protesters, of which some 1400 were injured, including currently listed 20 in critical condition.
Schools, universities, public institutions and private businesses closed their doors in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip on Saturday – a working day for most Palestinians, after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for a national day of mourning.
The funerals and burials of the 16 casualties, most of whom were in their twenties, are set to be held later on Saturday in the Gaza Strip.
More than half of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants are refugees or their descendants, according to the United Nations.
Other Palestinian factions have joined the Islamist movement Hamas in promoting the “Great Return March,” which plans to maintain a presence of hundreds of protesters along the border between Gaza and Israel until May 15, when Palestinians commemorate what they call the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), referring to the exile and dispossession of Arabs that accompanied the founding of Israel in 1948.
The border protest drew tens of thousands of Palestinians to five locations along the fenced 65km frontier, where tents were erected for a planned six-week protest, local officials said.
The Israeli military estimate was 30,000.
The day began peacefully, with families bringing their children to the encampments just a few hundred metres from the Israeli security barrier with the Hamas Islamist-run enclave. Impromtu football fields were marked out in the sand and scout bands played.
But as the day wore on, hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from both organisers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier, where Israeli soldiers across the border kept watch from dirt-mound embankments.
The military said its troops had used “riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators”. Some of the demonstrators were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones” at the border fence and at soldiers.
Two Palestinians were killed by tank fire, the Gaza health ministry said.
The Israeli military countered that the two were militants who had opened fire on troops across the border.
Palestinian health officials said Israeli forces fired live rounds against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had deployed a drone over at least one location to drop tear gas.
Live fire was used only against people trying to sabotage the border security fence and at least two of the dead were Hamas operatives, an Israeli military official said.
Gaza health officials said one of the those killed was only 16 while at least 400 people were wounded by live gunfire. Others were struck by rubber bullets or treated for tear gas inhalation.
In a statement, the Israeli military accused Hamas of “cynically exploiting women and children, sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives”.
The military said that more than 100 army sharpshooters had been deployed in the area and earth-moving vehicles piled up the dirt mounds to stop any attempt to breach the barrier.
Major General Eyal Zamir, head of Israel’s Southern Command, said his forces had identified “attempts to carry out terror attacks under the camouflage of riots”.
Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, had earlier urged protesters to adhere to the “peaceful nature” of the protest.
There were also small protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and about 65 Palestinians were injured.