Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in the Gaza Strip on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of their mass protests along the Israeli border, as the territory’s Hamas leaders largely restrained the crowds ahead of a hoped-for cease-fire deal.
Demonstrators largely kept their distance from the border, though small crowds of activists approached the perimeter fence and threw stones and explosives toward Israeli troops on the other side. The forces responded with tear gas and opened fire, killing three Palestinians and wounding 64.
Hamas had pledged to keep the crowds a safe distance from the fence as Egyptian mediators were working to cement a deal that Hamas hopes will ease a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the crowded territory. Hamas officials say Israel is offering a package of economic incentives in exchange for calm along the volatile border.
Khalil Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said the group had received “positive signs” from the Egyptians. He added that the Egyptian team was to return to Israel on Sunday to continue the talks. “We will continue our marches until all our goals are achieved,” he said.
Saturday’s protest comes at a sensitive time, with Israel and Hamas, bitter enemies that have fought in three wars and dozens of smaller skirmishes, both having a strong interest in keeping things quiet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of former army chiefs who have criticized what they say is his failed Gaza policy. With a lack of alternatives, Netanyahu has been forced at times to rely on Hamas to maintain stability along Israel’s volatile southern front.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Netanyahu needs to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, without seeming to make concessions to Hamas. Netanyahu took heavy criticism this week for what was seen as a soft response to renewed rocket fire out of Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, faces growing unrest in Gaza as a result of worsening conditions after more than a decade of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. The two countries imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
The blockade has helped drive unemployment over 50%, led to chronic power outages and made it extremely difficult for Gazans to travel out of the territory.
Earlier this month, Hamas violently suppressed several days of public protests, staged under the slogan, “We want to live,” over the dire conditions.
Speaking on the group’s Al Aqsa TV station, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, praised the protesters. “With this big turnout, our people say, ‘We want to live!’”
His use of the protesters’ slogan appeared to be aimed at diverting the recent criticism of his group. Hamas blames the blockade and punitive measures by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for worsening the living conditions.
The yearlong border protests have been aimed in large part at breaking the blockade, but haven’t delivered major improvements.
Saturday’s demonstrations were held at five rallying points along the border with Israel. Dozens of volunteers in fluorescent vests were deployed to restrain demonstrators, and cool rainy weather also appeared to moderate enthusiasm.
But as the crowds swelled throughout the afternoon in response to Hamas’ calls for a large turnout, dozens of protesters approached the fence, unfurling Palestinian flags and throwing rocks and explosives toward Israeli soldiers. The Israeli forces responded with tear gas and live fire.
The Israeli military estimated 40,000 Palestinians were at the marches.
“The rioters are hurling rocks and setting tires on fire. In addition, a number of grenades and explosive devices have been hurled at the Gaza Strip security fence,” it said in a statement.
In his own statement, Netanyahu praised the army’s preparation and performance in maintaining “calm.”
Gaza’s Health Ministry said a 17-year-old protester died immediately after being shot in the face in east Gaza City. In the evening, the ministry said, another 17-year-old died elsewhere hours after being shot in the chest.
A third protester, also 17, succumbed to his wounds and died in the late evening.
Though bloodshed was not avoided, it was far less than previous high-profile protests. More than 60 people were killed during intense protests on May 14, the day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
As Saturday’s protest was winding down, organizers vowed to continue the marches and said they would gather again as usual next Friday.
The military released video footage showing large crowds of protesters gathered near the fence and hurling objects.
Some of the video showed a group of activists going up to the fence and hurling stones at the other side. In another video, a youth could be seen trying to pull apart barbed wire along the fence.
The army also said it caught two Palestinian youths who had tried to cross the border with a knife. The youths were returned to Gaza through a border crossing.
Earlier Saturday, Gaza health officials said Israeli troops shot and killed a 21-year-old Palestinian man near the perimeter fence, hours before the mass rally.
The army said that about 200 Palestinians “rioted during the night along the fence” and that the army used riot dispersal means against them.
The marches were initially organized by grass-roots activists who were calling for a mass return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.
Hamas quickly took the lead in the protests, using the gatherings to call for an easing of the blockade.
The border marches routinely ended in confrontations, with some of the Palestinian demonstrators burning tires, hurling firebombs or setting off explosives and Israeli troops firing live rounds and tear gas.
According to a Gaza rights group and a count by the Associated Press,196 Palestinians were killed in the demonstrations over the last year, including41 minors, and thousands were wounded by live fire. An Israeli soldier was also killed.
Israel says the army has been defending the border. The army accuses Hamas of using the large crowds as cover and encouraging demonstrators to hurl explosives, incendiary balloons and grenades across the border. But Israel has come under heavy international criticism for the large number of unarmed people who have been killed or injured.
Egypt has repeatedly tried to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, stepping up efforts in recent days after a Gaza rocket struck a house in central Israel earlier this week, injuring seven Israelis and threatening renewed escalation.