Several killed by Israeli fire in fresh Gaza border protest
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Friday's deaths brought to more than thirty the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire over the past week. Gaza's Health Ministry said more than a thousand people were wounded on Friday, including almost three hundred by live fire.
Friday's march was the second in what Gaza's Hamas rulers said would be several weeks of protests against a decade-old border blockade of the territory. Israel has accused the Islamic militant group of using the protests as a cover for attacking Israel's border, and has warned that those approaching the fence put their lives at risk.
On Friday, thousands of Palestinians streamed to five tent encampments that organisers had set up at various points from north to south, each about several hundred metres from the border fence.
Nevertheless, FRANCE 24 Jerusalem correspondent Irris Makler, who was on the ground at the Israel-Gaza border, reported that “while I have seen increasing numbers of people gathering here, it’s still smaller than it was last week”.
Attempts to cross border thwarted
In one camp near the border community of Khuzaa, smaller groups of activists moved closer to the fence after Muslim noon prayers. They torched large piles of tires, engulfing the area in black smoke meant to shield them from Israeli snipers. The faces of some of the activists were covered in black soot.
Israeli troops on the other side of the fence responded with live fire, tear gas, rubber coated steel pellets and water cannons trained at the fence.
The Israeli military said protesters hurled several explosive devices and firebombs in an attempt to damage the fence under cover of smoke. It said attempts to cross the fence were thwarted. The military said it brought in a huge fan to disperse smoke.
“What the Israeli military feared is that the protesters would use the cover of that smoke to cross the border and come into Israel,” Makler reported. “The military say they have stopped ten people at the border.”
After the first tires started burning, several young men with gunshot wounds began arriving at a field clinic at the camp.
Mohammed Ashour, 20, who had been among the first to set tires on fire, had been shot in the right arm. He rested on a stretcher placed on the ground.
"We came here because we want dignity," he said before paramedics carried him to an ambulance to be transported to the strip's main hospital.
Legal challenge within Israel
Israel has drawn sharp criticism for its open-fire orders along the border, including the warnings that those approaching or trying to damage the fence would be targeted.
The UN human rights office said Friday that it has indications that Israeli forces used "excessive force" against protesters last week.
Rights groups have branded orders permitting the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters as unlawful. A leading Israeli rights group, B'Tselem, issued a rare appeal to Israeli soldiers this week to refuse "grossly illegal" open-fire orders.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman David Keyes said: "When you see tens of thousands of people gathering with the express purpose of annihilating your state, when they’ve planted bombs along the security fence, shot into your territory, and lobbed Molotov cocktails at you, I think it makes a lot of sense to try and stop those people from infiltrating – which was the goal of Hamas."
Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said snipers are used "sparingly" and only against those that pose a "significant threat".
“There has been a legal challenge by civic organisations within Israel to change the orders so that live fire should not be used – but the Israeli government is standing firm,” Makler observed.
“Nevertheless, we do see from the smaller number of casualties so far that perhaps, unofficially, there has been some change in the way the Israeli military on the ground is dealing with things here.”
'What more do they want from us?'
Ahead of Friday's march, Hamas announced it would pay compensation to families of those killed or injured, ranging from $200 to $500 per injury and $3,000 per death.
The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, with the backing of smaller militant factions.
For Hamas, it's perhaps the 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.
For his part, Keyes suggested that Hamas is to blame for the difficult economic situation in Gaza. "I’m sure that Gazans are very frustrated by being ruled by a theocratic dictatorship which steals billions of dollars from them and instead invests it in a war machine to send rockets at Israelis and fight futile wars that they can’t win," he told FRANCE 24.
As for the mood within Israel, Makler said: “in Israel, there is a feeling, amongst the people that I speak to, that Israel left Gaza – this is the border now; there are no more Israeli soldiers and settlers there after the withdrawal in 2005.
“The general reaction of the population is: ‘what more do they want from us?’”
(FRANCE 24 with AP)