Hundreds of Palestinians stormed a flimsy fence that runs along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel on Friday, setting parts of the barrier on fire.
It was the first breach of the security fence in five consecutive weeks of Palestinian protests. Israeli army spokesman Lt. Jonathan Conricus said Israel viewed this as an “audacious” and “severe” attack, adding that Israel will not tolerate attempts to infiltrate its territory.
According to Conricus, between 500 and 700 protesters managed to penetrate about 30 yards into Israel, remaining in a dusty strip of no-man’s land adjacent to a village, where residents were readying for Friday night dinners.
Three people were killed and at least 350 were wounded Friday, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
The ministry said that 45 of the wounded were hit by live fire from Israeli forces.
Conricus said that 12,000 to 14,000 Palestinians participated in the protests. They rolled burning tires, hurled rocks, flew “kites with flaming objects attached to them” and made several attempts to burn and breach the border fence before succeeding, he said.
“The rioters approached the security fence and hurled explosive devices, grenades, firebombs and rocks and tried to light the security fence on fire,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
Palestinian media reported that six of the wounded are journalists. A reporter, Abdel Rahman Alkahlout, was shot in the leg by Israeli forces, according to Palestinian reports, and a photographer, Hashem Hamada, was hit in the head by a tear gas canister.
Today’s breach of the border fence was unprecedented, but long feared and foreseen by the Israeli military.
The demonstrations, collectively dubbed the Great March of Return, originally were scheduled to culminate in a massive march of thousands on May 15, the date on which Palestinians mark Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe.
But on Wednesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh announced that the weekly protests would continue beyond May 15, which this year also marks the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The Palestinian people will demonstrate throughout the month of Ramadan to deal with the many challenges facing us, and first of all the peace plan promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the so-called ‘deal of the century,’” Haniyeh said.
Palestinian anger at the United States has escalated since Trump’s December announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The U.S. Embassy move is set for May 14, in honor of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Israel has long sought the move and the recognition. Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, strongly object.
Trump has touted a Middle East peace plan, to be negotiated by his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, since the start of his presidency, calling it “the ultimate deal,” but Israeli, Palestinian and American officials have yet to see it.
“We will turn this deal into a resounding slap in the face for the administration in Washington and anyone who weaves conspiracies against the Palestinian people,” Haniyeh said.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 42 Palestinians had been killed and 5,511 wounded in the weekly marches in Gaza. No Israeli casualties have been reported.
Israel has faced a growing international outcry over its use of live fire to contain the protests, which have included improvised bombs and numerous attempts to breach the border fence.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad Hussein said Friday that Israel must explain its use of “excessive force” in Gaza, where “the number of injuries is staggering.”
A spokesman for the Israeli military said Thursday that its “troops operate in accordance with clear rules of engagement that are tailored to these scenarios.”
Amnesty International published a statement Friday calling for an embargo on arms sales to Israel and asserting that “Israel is carrying out a murderous assault against protesting Palestinians, with its armed forces killing and maiming demonstrators who pose no imminent threat to them.”
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley denounced the participation of unarmed Palestinian civilians in the protests, saying, “Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel.”
Addressing a U.N. Security Council meeting, Haley said, “It’s difficult to think of a more cowardly act — even for a terrorist — than hiding behind innocent civilians.”
Several journalists have been killed and wounded since March 30, when the protests started. Yasser Murtaja, a Palestinian photographer wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “Press,” was killed while covering the march on April 6. Ahmed Abu Hussein, another photographer, died this week of injuries sustained in the April 13 march. The Israeli army says it is investigating the circumstances of their deaths but has yet to issue any findings.
On Thursday, an Israeli army spokesman said that it “does not aim to harm members of the press.”
Despite the fact that bullet wounds caused the deaths of Murtaja and Hussein, the spokesman postulated that “if the journalists in question had stumbled and fell or inhaled tear gas, which is one of the riot dispersal means used, it is impossible for the [Israeli army] to prevent such injuries. We encourage journalists to act with caution in the areas in which Hamas carries out terrorist acts and leads violent riots.”
The Gaza Strip, a tiny, beleaguered enclave bounded by Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, has survived under an onerous blockade since 2007, when Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militia, wrested control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new casualty numbers and details about protesters breaching and burning the border fence.
This article was originally published at 10 a.m.