GAZA – At least 15 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,400 others wounded by Israeli forces as thousands marched near Gaza’s border with Israel in a major demonstration marking the 42nd anniversary of Land Day, according to media reports.
The Palestinian Health Ministry reported the casualties after hundreds demonstrated Friday afternoon. Israeli forces fired live rounds, rubber-coated steel pellets and tear gas at the protesters during the ongoing violence.
Thousands have gathered along the border for a six-week-long ‘Great Return’ protest. The mass demonstration got underway on Friday as Palestinians held a mass rally to commemorate Land Day, which marks the killing of six unarmed civilians by Israeli forces in 1976.
Hamas said as many as 100,000 Palestinians will take part in Friday’s massive demonstration. The protest coincides with the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which regularly leads to increased tensions in the already-volatile region.
The six-week-long demonstrations are calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. The protests are set to culminate in May as Israel celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, which Palestinians call Nakba (catastrophe) day.
Tent cities have been set up by Palestinian activists, backed by factions of Fatah and Hamas, at five locations along the border. They feature medical facilities, media zones, portable toilets, running water and electricity.
“We have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters, who were called up from all of the military’s units, primarily from the special forces,” Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said, Ynet news reports. “If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire.”
A Hamas official warned that there will be a reaction to any Israeli provocations. “We don’t want to see a bloodbath. Just a quiet protest,” he said to Israel Hayom, warning that “if there are Israeli provocations and if Israel deliberately harms protesters or our people we will mount a harsh response.”
Friday’s demonstration commemorates Land Day, which marks the day – March 30, 1976 – when six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli forces during protests against the Israeli government’s decision to expropriate massive tracts of Palestinian land.
According to Israeli media, Israel’s army deployed more than 100 snipers on the other side of the border with permission to fire.
The march was called for by all political factions and several Palestinian civil society organisations in the besieged enclave.
Protesters said the main message of the march was to call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Some 70 percent of Gaza’s two million population are descendants of Palestinians who were driven from their homes in the territories taken over by Israel during the 1948 war, known to Arabs as the Nakba.
Speaking to the protesters, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said: “The Palestinian people have proved time after time that they can take the initiative and do great things. This march is the beginning of the return to all of Palestine.”
Friday’s protest also kicked off six weeks of a sit-in demonstration along the border leading up to the commemoration of the Nakba on May 15.
It is expected that the United States will be transferring its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem around the same time, following President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.
Israel declares ‘closed military zone’ around Gaza
Israel has enforced a closed military zone in the area around the Gaza Strip amid protests on Friday. At least ten people were killed when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) employed live fire against the crowd, according to Palestinian sources.
“The IDF has enforced a closed military zone in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip in accordance with situation assessments,” the IDF announced through social media.
The IDF has enforced a closed military zone in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip in accordance with situation assessments
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) March 30, 2018
Early on Friday, Israel boosted its military presence along the security fence surrounding the enclave, by deploying additional infantry battalions. Earlier, it had also announced that over 100 snipers authorized to use live ammo would be deployed to the volatile border area.
More police officers were also sent to southern Israel as a backup in case the army fails to prevalent the Palestinian protestors from crossing into Israeli territory. Israeli citizens were also forbidden from approaching the border without special permission from the IDF.