Gaza protest sees mix of violence, family gathering


Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Some spots seemed like a war zone, others the site of a mass picnic as tens of thousands of Gazans marched near the Israeli border Friday on the first day of a six-week demonstration.

At least 15 Palestinians were killed, while hundreds of others were wounded as clashes erupted, resulting in one of the bloodiest days of recent years in the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

Each time someone was shot, dozens of Gazans rushed to help carry them to one of the ambulances standing by to bring them for treatment.

The helpers would turn around and resume throwing stones at Israeli troops or just standing around and watching.

In one of the first uses of the technology, an Israeli drone hovered above the crowd dropping tear gas canisters, sending the crowds into coughing fits.

Saleh, 17, could hardly breathe, let alone talk, after inhaling the gas.

But, with his traditional keffiyeh headscarf covering his face, he caried on throwing stones toward Israeli soldiers somewhere beyond his range.

He was accompanied by two friends setting alight tyres to roll at the soldiers, with smoke billowing across the scene.

One of the dead was Mohammed Abu Amar, an artist well-known in Gaza for carving Arabic calligraphy into sand on the beach.

In his last post on Facebook, he shared a picture of the words "I will go back," referring to the desire of Palestinian refugees to return to land their ancestors left or were forced to flee in the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948.

Israel's military alleged that the main protests were being used as cover by militants to either break through the border or carry out attacks.

It had pledged not to allow any infiltrations into its territory and deployed snipers before the protests began.

The army said it only used force as necessary and held Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, responsible for what occurred.

Palestinians accused soldiers of disproportionate force.

- Tent city -

But while close to the border clashes raged, a few hundred metres (yards) away the atmosphere was far different -- even jovial.

Thousands of Palestinians, including families with young children, began camping in tents -- far enough from the frontier to largely avoid the tear gas.

Artists performed the traditional Palestinian dabkeh dance or played nationalist songs in the few communal tents.

Hundreds of volunteers distributed food and mineral water, while vendors sold coffee, tea, falafel and liver sandwiches.

Children gorged themselves on sugar-coated pistachios.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, considered a terrorist by Israel, the United States and others, played a casual game of football with youngsters.

Friday's protest was organised for Land Day, when Palestinians mark the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.

But the camp will continue for up to six weeks, as Palestinians seek to build pressure ahead of the United States switching its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in line with President Donald Trump's decision to recognise the holy city as the capital of the Jewish state.

Ahmed Saber, 80, sat Friday in a tent east of Gaza City.

In 1948 his family fled the village of Majdal, on the site of what is now the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, not far from the Gaza border.

"I feel that these tents are similar to the white tents that were set up for us after they made us flee," he said.

In his hand he clutched a key which he said unlocked the door to his home in the now demolished village.

Palestinians continued to reach the five campsites into Friday evening. Fresh protests were expected Saturday.