GAZA (Reuters) – Dozens of Palestinian youths gathered by the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, though the area remained mostly quiet, a day after deadly violence broke out in one of the biggest Palestinian demonstrations there in years.
In the southern Gaza Strip, residents said Israeli troops fired warning shots toward a crowd of youths, some of whom burned tyres. Health officials said two people were wounded and an Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details.
On Friday, at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters, some of whom the military said had opened fire, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a national day of mourning and a general strike was called across the occupied West Bank. Thousands in Gaza marched through the streets at funerals for those killed.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents were erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel. The Israeli military estimate was 30,000.
Families brought their children to the encampments just a few hundred metres (yards) from the Israeli security barrier with the Islamist Hamas-run enclave. Football pitches were marked out in the sand and scout bands played.
But as Friday wore on, hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier, where Israeli soldiers on the other side kept watch from dirt mound embankments, and violence broke out.
PALESTINIANS MARKING “CATASTROPHE”
The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.
Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It argues that refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”
Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence would likely continue along the border until May 15.
“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters in a phone briefing.
The Gaza Health Ministry had said on Friday 16 people were killed but revised the death toll to 15 on Saturday.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Bolton