Thick, acrid black smoke enveloped the Gaza Strip on Friday as 20,000 demonstrators rallied along the border with Israel, burning tires, the occasional Israeli flag and, for the first time, photographs of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Eight Palestinians, one of them a 16-year-old, were reported killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
The Israel Defense Forces did not explain what caused them to respond to the rallies with live fire, but in a statement said “the violent riots” took place at five sites along the Gaza-Israel border, including several attempts “to infiltrate into Israel under the cover of a smokescreen, as well as additional explosive devices and firebombs thrown towards IDF soldiers.”
The demonstration was the second of six planned protests Friday organized by Hamas, the Islamist militia that rules the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave that is separate from the West Bank.
The rallies are scheduled to culminate in a massive effort to flatten the fence separating the blockaded strip from Israel on May 14, commemorating Israel’s establishment 70 years ago. Palestinians call it Nakba, or catastrophe, day.
The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza identified the teenager who was killed in Friday’s clashes as Hussein Mohammed Madi. It reported that 293 people were wounded in the beleaguered Palestinian territory caught between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. The injuries ranged from bullet wounds to smoke inhalation.
The demonstrators, who dubbed their protest the Great Return March, rallied at five points along the border. The turnout represented a significant decrease from last week’s protests, in which more than 30,000 people participated and 19 were killed.
At least one Palestinian journalist, Yasser Mourthaja, was wounded in the clashes. He was photographed being taken from the clashes on a stretcher, still wearing his bulletproof vest marked “PRESS.”
Protesters rolled or hurled more than 10,000 burning tires toward Israeli soldiers stationed along the border fence. Wind blew the smoke over the Gaza Strip, but left southern Israeli communities largely unaffected.
Israeli army sources reported several thwarted Palestinian attempts to breach the fence that marks the border. In a Thursday briefing, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis told journalists Israel believed the heavy smoke, which he described as an “ecological catastrophe,” served two strategic purposes: to conceal the reduced number of demonstrators and to cover attempted terrorist attacks along the fence, or attempted infiltrations into Israeli territory.
For Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Europeand Israel, the rallies are an attempt to show force in the face of increasingly dire punitive measures exacted against it by the Palestinian Authority, such as severerestrictions on the flow of potable water and electricity into the strip, and what it perceives to be the apathy of the Arab leadership.
Alongside Israeli flags burned in the Gaza protests, photographs of the Saudi crown prince were also set on fire, a commentary on the prince’s visit this week to the United States — where, among other high-profile meetings, he also engaged in highly visible encounters with the American Jewish community.
For the second Friday, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, made a rare public appearance, mingling among the crowds near the city of Khan Younis, at a safe distance from the fence itself.
Sinwar said the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al Aqsa,” referring to the mosque in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has becomea principal Palestinian rallying point since President Trump declared in December that the United States would recognize it as Israel’s capital, without mentioning Palestinian claims for sovereignty over its eastern half.
Sinwar was greeted with cheers and hundreds of supporters chanting, “We are going to Jerusalem, millions of martyrs.”
Special correspondents Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Abu Alouf from Jabalya.
12:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with higher death toll.
10:05 a.m.: This article has been updated with higher death toll, additional details.
This article was originally posted at 8:05 a.m.