GAZA CITY — Israeli forces used tear gas and live ammunition Saturday to repel tens of thousands of protesters gathered along the Gaza border to mark the anniversary of demonstrations aimed at easing Israel’s blockade, but the day’s violence was muted compared to that of a year earlier.
Gaza’s Health Ministry reported four deaths from gunfire: a 21-year-old man and three 17-year-old boys. About 316 people were injured, including 64 by live ammunition, it said.
Israel’s military said 30,000 protesters had gathered Saturday; some throwing stones and burning tires. Grenades and explosive devices had been thrown at the fence, it said. The military released footage showing several Palestinians hurling stones near the first layer of fencing, with one grabbing hold of it.
Tear gas dropped by drones and shot from the Israeli side of the fence regularly showered the crowd, which was largely peaceful and drew families, while the sound of gunshots occasionally rang out.
Walking toward the fence with his 11-year-old son, Adel Yassin, a 50-year-old translator, said he didn’t care about the risk. “We are dying silently anyway,” he said. “I’m not able to feed them and support them,” he said of his eight children. “If we are going to die, we’ll die standing.”
Saturday’s protest was in contrast to the scene a year earlier, when 15 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 were shot as they gathered for the first day of the “March of Return” and live rounds were fired nearby continually. The protests have continued weekly, since.
The march has aimed to draw attention to the Palestinian “right of return” to homes lost in the 1948 war and now inside Israel, but Hamas has also used the demonstrations to urge Israel to loosen restrictions on Gaza and help fix its chronic electricity problems, with Egypt trying to broker an agreement between the two sides.
In exchange, however, Gaza’s residents have paid a high price. The death toll has reached 269, according to Palestinian health authorities in Gaza. The United Nations puts the number of protesters killed at 195 until March 22, saying that an additional 76 people have died in “other circumstances,” including airstrikes as a result of attempting to infiltrate Israel. The United Nations and local officials say that about 6,900 people have been shot with live ammunition.
Israel’s use of force over the past year has sparked widespread condemnation; the country has denied that it changed its rules of engagement. Israel rejected a U.N. report last month that said the Israeli military may be responsible for war crimes for using lethal force against unarmed protesters who did not pose an imminent threat. One Israeli soldier has been killed and six injured.
Hamas officials said Egyptian mediators were expected to return on Sunday with a timeline from Israel for the implementation of a deal, which includes extending the area Gaza’s fishing boats are allowed to use, connecting a power line to Israel and easing restrictions on trade.
Qatar has already agreed, in coordination with Israel, to extend a temporary deal that has allowed in cash for Gaza’s power station and aid for poor families.
More than 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, and Hamas officials have said the demonstrations have helped divert some of the frustration that had been brimming against its government back toward Israel. But patience has worn thin, and demonstrations against Hamas have been bubbling up in recent months, spurring the group to push for more concessions from Israel.
Officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second-largest militant faction,
had said that the Israeli military’s response to the demonstration Saturday — and what kind of force it uses — would be a “test” of Israel’s commitment to a deal. They said Israel had agreed to curb its use of live ammunition.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said that there was less violence because Hamas had adjusted its use of force. The organizing committee for the protests called for demonstrators to stay at least 200 meters away from the border, not to burn tires and to refrain from “tough” methods of protesting, a reference to activities such as launching burning kites and molotov cocktails.
But demonstrators still ignored the guidelines, gathering around the fence as usual as some pushed right up to it.
Although Israel and Hamas are enemies, fighting a bloody war in 2014, analysts say its in Israel’s interest to maintain stability rather than squeeze the group.
In return, Hamas has said it will stop protesters from activities such as launching burning kites and balloons into Israel, a practice that began several months into the weekly demonstrations last year.
Hamas officials, however, said they could not accept an Israeli demand to stop the protests altogether, and discussions on a prisoner exchange have also stalled.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for reelection in less than two weeks, has been criticized by right-wing members of his governing coalition for being too soft on Hamas.
Dozens of Israeli tanks are still massed on the border with Gaza following an escalation in hostilities this week after a rocket that the military said was manufactured and fired by Hamas slammed into a house near Tel Aviv, injuring seven Israelis. Israel retaliated with airstrikes, hitting targets including Haniyeh’s office. Hamas responded with more rocket fire.
There was little sign Saturday that the demonstrations would end anytime soon.
“We will continue until the siege is broken,” Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar told demonstrators east of Gaza City.
Hassan Zaneen, 26, was shot twice in the protests but said he thought it was worth it.
“If there was no pressure, they wouldn’t come,” he said, referring to Egyptian negotiators. He traveled to the border despite objections from his family. “I’m not there,” he told his mother as she called to check that he hadn’t risked going to the border. She didn’t believe him.