Thousands of Palestinians protested along the Gaza Strip’s eastern border Friday, vowing to press on with a seven-week campaign to reclaim ancestral homelands in what is now Israel.
They were the first significant demonstrations in the enclave since Israeli forces shot and killed 59 people and injured hundreds more during protests Monday coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation and the formal opening of a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Raad Hussein, delivered a sharp rebuke against Israel on Friday, saying, “There is little evidence of any attempt to minimize casualties on Monday.”
Addressing a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, he said “the stark contrast in casualties on both sides” was “suggestive of a wholly disproportionate response.”
More than 110 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the protests began March 30. An Israeli soldier was injured by a stone Monday, Hussein said, but there have been no deaths on the Israeli side.
The council voted 29 to 2 to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the deadly crackdown, a move decried by Israel and the United States. Charging bias against Israel, the two countries’ representatives noted that Friday’s resolution made no mention of Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls Gaza and which they regard as a terrorist group.
Most of those killed this week were members of the group, a senior Hamas official said Wednesday.
“If in the last round, 62 were martyred, 50 of them were from Hamas, and 12 were other people’s sons,” Salah Bardawil, a member of the Hamas political bureau, said in an interview with the local Baladna Channel, a Palestinian news outlet that broadcasts via Facebook. “This is an official figure I’m giving you. And before that, you can say that 50% at least of the martyrs were from Hamas.”
Bardawil did not specify whether these were fighters or civilian supporters of Hamas.
But Israeli officials — who have accused Hamas of using the protests as cover to try to wage attacks against its soldiers and civilians — seized on the comments as evidence that the protests are not the peaceful gatherings that organizers portray.
“It was clear to Israel and now it is clear to the whole world that there was no popular protest,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Wednesday. “This was an organized mob of terrorists organized by Hamas.”
Hamas leaders had said the protests would reach a climax Tuesday, when Palestinians commemorate what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 70 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of their forebears were displaced or fled their homes.
But after Monday’s bloodshed, the focus shifted Tuesday to burying the dead, and the crowds at the border were much smaller. On Friday, prayer leaders across the densely populated enclave urged Gazans to return to the border fence.
At a mosque in Gaza City, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that for all the “painful farewells,” good things had come from the protests, including a refocusing of international attention on the plight of Palestinians and “real steps” to ease a crippling blockade that has sharply curtailed the movement of goods and people to and from the strip since Hamas took over in 2007.
He cited a decision by Egypt to keep the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip open throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the longest period since 2013. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi said in a tweet posted on his official account late Thursday that the move would “alleviate the burdens of the brothers in the Gaza Strip.”
Haniyeh said the protests would continue until the blockade was completely lifted.
Several injured Gaza residents with Jordanian citizenship were also allowed to cross into Israel on Friday with their relatives to be taken to Jordan for medical treatment, the Israeli military said. The military said it had transferred large quantities of equipment to Gaza earlier in the week, but all of it was returned by Hamas.
Later in the afternoon Friday, buses departed from mosques loaded with men, women and children who wanted to break their Ramadan fast at the main protest camp east of Gaza City. Most kept a safe distance from the Israeli soldiers on the other side of security barriers. But several hundred surged forward, swinging slingshots and burning tires to create a thick, black smokescreen.
Israeli forces responded with volleys of tear gas and the occasional gunshot. But casualties were much lower than on Monday: 56 people were treated for gas inhalation, according to Gaza health officials.
Hazem Naizi, who brought his 7-year-old son to the protests, planted a pair of plastic stools in the sand so they could watch the spectacle.
“I brought him here so he can know his land,” Naizi said, pointing in the direction of agricultural fields on the other side of the security barrier.
He shrugged off the danger: “If he doesn’t die from a bullet at the border, he will die from the siege,” Naizi said.
Mohammed Abu Marasa, 20, was shot in the ankle Monday but returned to the protest camp Friday leaning on a cane with a bandaged leg.
“I want to take [a bullet] in the head for the sake of Jerusalem,” he said. “It is better than this life.”
Conditions for most Gazans are desperate: Unemployment is close to 50%, the tap water is undrinkable, homes and businesses receive only a few hours of electricity a day, and hospitals are running out of supplies.
On the Israeli side, fire crews struggled to keep up as kites carrying flaming rags floated over from Gaza during an unseasonable heat wave. There were “too many fires to count,” a soldier stationed amid the fields of Nahal Oz kibbutz said. While the green jojoba fields resisted the flames, dry wheat sheaves almost ready for harvest acted like kindling.
Police later said they were looking into the possibility that some of the fires were the result of an arson attack, rather than incendiary kites from Gaza.
In the rest of Israel and the West Bank, the first Friday of Ramadan passed quietly. Some 100,000 people prayed at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, including 40,000 Palestinians who were issued special permits to enter the city, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
About 7,000 others in the West Bank prayed at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, a site known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where a Sabbath service was held late Friday on the other side of the same ancient building.