The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Burning tires, tear gas and live fire: Gaza clashes turn deadly

Palestinian demonstrators shout during clashes with Israeli troops at the border of Israel and Gaza Strip on Friday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

GAZA CITY — Clouds of thick black smoke billowed across the edges of the Gaza Strip on Friday as Palestinian protesters used burning tires in an attempt to shield themselves from sniper fire as they faced off against heavily armed Israeli troops. By the end of the day, seven Palestinians had been killed, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Israeli soldiers used live ammunition and tear gas as tens of thousands of Gaza residents gathered in the latest show of anger along the dividing line between Israel and the 140-square-mile strip of territory. The Israeli military said firebombs were hurled and explosives were planted near the fence in northern Gaza. 

Through the early afternoon, the demonstration appeared significantly smaller than one a week earlier that turned into the bloodiest day for Palestinians in Gaza since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. Groups mostly of young men advanced to the border and hurled rocks with slingshots from behind the clouds of smoke. 

The protests swelled by late afternoon to include more women and children, with the Israeli military estimating that at least 20,000 people had gathered.

The use of live ammunition by Israeli forces initially appeared relatively limited. But toward the end of the day, the violence escalated. The Gaza Health Ministry said about 1,400 people were injured Friday, including 399 with gunshot wounds. The ministry said 754 people were hospitalized — 730 men and 24 women. 

In addition, another person died Friday from injuries sustained in the clashes a week ago. 

Some Palestinian families had expressed concerns about attending the Friday protests after the violence a week earlier, when residents of the blockaded strip launched what they said would be six weeks of demonstrations.

The Israeli military says it has been forced to use live ammunition to prevent demonstrators from breaking through the fence and says Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, is exploiting the demonstrations as a cover to carry out terrorist attacks.  

Hamas has thrown its weight behind the protests, which provide a distraction from the growing misery in Gaza. But the demonstrations have drawn Palestinians from various factions, who are rallying around the demand that they regain and return to their ancestral land.

About 70 percent of residents in Gaza are refugees or the descendants of those displaced from towns and villages now in Israel.  

Many protesters who gathered at the border said they felt hopeless and frustrated. Gaza’s economy may be on the verge of collapse, according to the United Nations, and only a tiny proportion of the enclave’s 2 million inhabitants are allowed to leave because of tight Israeli restrictions and an often-closed border with Egypt.

Hamas has been paying those who are injured or killed, raising concerns that some protesters may be more inclined to risk their lives in the line of Israeli fire. 

Abu Majahid, 32, who declined to give his full name, carried metal pump parts to the fence that he said he intended to throw at Israeli soldiers.

Others said they were engaged in more peaceful resistance.

Jalal Marzak, 40, said he sought to send the message that Palestinians in Gaza are still “dreaming and hoping.” Marzak, who said he didn’t support any particular political faction, said he had sneaked out of his home after his wife demanded that the family stay away from the protests because of possible danger.

“That’s her calling right now,” he said as his cellphone rang. “I’ll cancel it. I’m in big trouble.”

Israel’s use of live ammunition against Palestinians a week earlier drew condemnation from ­human rights groups and calls for an investigation by the United Nations. The Israeli government praised its soldiers for protecting the fence. 

On Friday, Kuwait attempted for the second time in a week to get the U.N. Security Council to call for an investigation into the clashes on the Gaza border. A draft statement seen by The Washington Post was almost identical to one that the United States blocked last week. It urged restraint and an “independent and transparent investigation” into the violence.

A U.N. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the private negotiations, said that once again the United States blocked the statement. Kuwait’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi, promised to keep trying to get it adopted.

The number of casualties on Friday was lower than a week earlier. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said that Israeli forces had not adjusted their rules of engagement in response to criticism. He said the number of people shot depended on the tactics adopted by Hamas. 

The IDF released this footage of protesters in Gaza burning piles of tires April 6. The protests began last week and are dubbed the "March of Return." (Video: Israel Defense Forces)

At al-Shifa hospital, the main medical facility in Gaza, ambulances screamed up to the front doors and unloaded the injured on stretchers.

Ayman al-Sahbani, head of the emergency department, said that 130 casualties had been brought in, all of them with gunshot wounds “except for a few cases.” That compared with 284 treated by the hospital last week, he said. Hospital logs viewed earlier by The Post showed the number to be 283. 

At the Indonesian Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, Salah Abu Layla, head of the emergency room, said that 86 injured people had come in by 6 p.m., the majority suffering gunshot wounds to the lower limbs, but some suffering from gas inhalation and injuries from tear gas canisters or rubber-coated bullets.

Hashim Zakout, 24, lay in the emergency room with a bullet wound to the leg. He said he threw “little stones,” but they were “for the freedom.” He said he hadn’t attended demonstrations a week earlier because he had been volunteering as a clerk in a hospital and had been on his shift. 

Conricus said that live ammunition was used as a “last resort.” Jets from water cannons could be seen piercing the clouds of black smoke, but Israel’s military said they were being used for putting out fires.

Tear gas canisters occasionally landed more than 300 meters from the fence — the distance at which the Israeli military has told Gaza residents to stay away. However, banks of earth erected in the days before the demonstration at around the 300-meter mark prevented too many stray bullets traveling farther. 

Hamas and the organizing committee for the “March of Return,” as they have named the protests, hope to sustain them until at least the May 15 commemoration of “the Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe” — the term Palestinians use for the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians seven decades ago upon Israel’s creation.

Hamas’s internal security branch on Friday called for protesters to remain “peaceful” and to obscure their faces, amid speculation that the Israeli military was identifying and targeting known militants. Hamas said five members of its military wing were killed in the protest last week. Israel said the total number of “known terrorists” killed was 10.  

Six Palestinian journalists were shot despite wearing clothes identifying them as members of the press, the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate said. The Israeli military said it did not have an immediate comment.

Gaza families call for investigation into Israeli use of fatal force

Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report. 

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