At a demonstration point near Gaza City, protesters began burning the tires on Thursday afternoon, with rock-throwers taking cover behind the thick, billowing black smoke. Israeli forces used gunfire and tear gas to keep them away from the border fence.
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and other major Palestinian factions have thrown their weight behind demonstrations in the 140-square-mile territory on the Mediterranean Sea.
Eighteen Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd that massed on the border for a demonstration called the “March of Return” last week on Land Day, an annual commemoration of a 1976 protest against Israeli confiscation of Arab-owned land. Three more deaths since Friday have brought the Palestinian death toll in confrontations with Israeli forces to 21, according to figures from the Gaza Health Ministry and Israeli officials.
Israel has said that the crowd was violent and that Hamas, which the United States and Israel classify as a terrorist organization, has tried to use the demonstrations as cover to carry out attacks.
Most of the more than 30,000 Palestinians who gathered Friday near the dividing line with Israel were peaceful, but groups of young men threw rocks and molotov cocktails toward the fence.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said more than 1,400 were injured, including 758 by gunshots, mostly to the legs. The number is difficult to verify, but logs at Gaza City’s main hospital — just one of the medical facilities receiving casualties — showed that 283 people were brought in with injuries from Friday’s demonstration.
Hamas confirmed Thursday that it was giving compensation to injured people — $200 for those lightly hurt, $500 for serious injuries and $3,000 to families of those killed — raising concerns that young Palestinians with little to lose would risk Israeli fire. Last Friday, some young men said they hoped to be injured so they would be compensated, but were not sure if they would receive payment.
“Hamas is playing with fire,” said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, an Israel army spokesman. “It knows exactly what it is doing. It is trying to turn the area along the border into a battle zone. It is enticing civilians to carry out terrorist acts to destroy the fence.”
Israel has pointed to violent incidents along the border as evidence of Hamas’s true aims.
An Israeli airstrike Thursday killed an armed Palestinian militant as he approached the security fence, the Israeli military said. Hamas has released photos that purport to show Israeli soldiers on the border within sniper range, sending the message that if it wanted to kill Israeli soldiers, it could.
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was following rhetoric and preparations for Friday’s planned march “with concern.”
“Israeli forces should exercise maximum restraint, and Palestinians should avoid friction at the Gaza fence,” he said. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem took out newspaper advertisements calling on Israeli soldiers not to fire at unarmed demonstrators on Friday.
Israel has rejected a U.N. call for an investigation into last Friday’s deaths. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials have praised the actions of the military.
Political analysts in Gaza say Hamas has seized on the demonstrations, which were conceived by a local activist, as part of a new strategy. They say Hamas is attempting to use nonviolent protests to pressure and embarrass Israel, without giving up its own armed struggle, while deflecting the pressure building up against it due to Gaza’s economic crisis.
Hamas and the committee purportedly running the demonstrations say they want a peaceful protest. The committee includes independent activists as well as Hamas representatives.
The decision to burn tires has divided Palestinians in Gaza. The demonstration’s organizing committee opposes it, concerned that tire-burning will mar the protest.
Gazans say the idea circulated on social media, where it has also received pushback.
“I’m against it,” said Wijdan Hassanain, 45, as she bottle-fed her grandchild while watching demonstrators near the fence at a spot in northeastern Gaza. “It’s polluting the environment. And, secondly, it will be an excuse for the Jews to fire crazily and randomly.”
She said she had come to the border three times “because the smell of our land is calling us,” but she was not sure whether to return Friday with her family. She said she would check in the morning to see whether it seemed safe enough.
Demonstrators say they hope the thick black smoke will give them cover from Israeli snipers. At least 18 people were killed along the border fence last Friday or have succumbed to their injuries since. Hamas said five were members of its military; Israel put the number of militants killed at 10.
Manelis said militants plan to set fire to tires and roll them toward the fence in an attempt to create a smokescreen that would allow Hamas fighters to carry out attacks on the fence and break through.
Israel has threatened bus drivers who take demonstrators to the march, saying they will be viewed as aiding terrorism.
The Israeli military authority that controls the Palestinian areas released on Thursday what it said was an audio recording of an Israeli officer speaking to a bus company representative in Gaza.
The officer told the man that he and family members would be blacklisted from doing business with Israel if he drove people to the fence.
In response, the man claimed that his company had not been driving people to the fence, and that Hamas had threatened to imprison him when he refused and had brought its own drivers instead.
“Have a good day. You have been warned,” the officer said, ending the conversation.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem.