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Gaza buries its dead as death toll from protests at fence with Israel rises to at least 60

The death toll from the May 14 Gaza protests climbed to 61 Palestinians on May 15. Thousands of protesters had gathered along the Gaza border fence on May 14. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

GAZA CITY — Gaza residents buried their dead Tuesday as the death toll of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces at the Gaza boundary fence climbed to at least 60 after several succumbed to injuries overnight, according to local health officials.

Monday’s demonstrations, which coincided with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, were marked by a level of bloodshed not seen in Gaza since the 2014 war with Israel. Israel’s use of live ammunition has drawn widespread condemnation, notably from Turkey, which expelled the Israeli ambassador Tuesday after recalling its envoys to Israel and the United States. 

Gunfire rang out over Gaza City on Tuesday as rounds were fired during funeral processions. 

Further protests were planned as residents attended funerals and prepared to mark the anniversary of Israel’s founding, known to Palestinians as the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe.” More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population is descended from refugees who fled or were expelled at the time of Israel’s creation 70 years ago. 

However, crowds at the border were thin after the organizing committee for the demonstrations called for a day of mourning to bury the dead. Demonstrators were asked to go home early as the death toll climbed. 

Monday’s killings more than doubled the number of Palestinians slain in Gaza during six weeks of demonstrations, dubbed the “March of Return.” More than 2,700 people were injured, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said, about half of them from live ammunition. At least six of the dead were under age 18, the ministry said, including a girl whose family said she was 14. 

Israeli gunfire taking severe toll on the limbs of Palestinian protesters

The Health Ministry also reported that a baby died after inhaling tear gas at the main protest area in Gaza. An unidentified doctor told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the baby, Layla Ghaben, had a preexisting medical condition and that he did not think her death was caused by tear gas. 

One more person was killed in demonstrations Tuesday, the Health Ministry said. 

Speculation was rife that crowds were thinner because Egypt had pressured Hamas to order people home. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was summoned to Cairo on a last-minute trip Sunday night, and senior leaders were noticeably absent from Monday’s demonstrations. 

Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border, which opens only sporadically, while Israel has blockaded its boundary with the territory for the past 10 years. Ahmed Yousef, a former senior adviser to Haniyeh, said it was likely that Egypt had warned Hamas to prevent an escalation. 

Gaza residents buried their dead and continued to protest on May 15, as the death toll of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces climbed to at least 60. (Video: Mones Abu Nahel, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

He said Hamas may have secured some short-term concessions from Egypt in return, such as a sustained opening of the Rafah crossing point with Egypt, which has been open in recent days. 

“This is the minimum they can ask,” Yousef said of Hamas. 

Israeli officials justified the military’s tactics as necessary to stop Palestinians from breaking through the border into Israel, which blockaded Gaza after Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Tuesday that while Israel has a right to defend itself, lethal force should be a last resort and was not justified against people who were simply approaching the fence. He condemned Monday’s “appalling deadly violence.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned a continuing “massacre” of the Palestinian people.

South Africa joined Turkey in announcing that it was recalling its ambassador from Israel.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called on Muslim countries to review their ties with Israel in the wake of the violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later attacked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter, saying that he “is one of the great supporters of Hamas, and there is no doubt that he understands terror and the massacres well, and I suggest that he not preach morality to us.”

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Israeli newspapers Tuesday contrasted the upbeat inauguration ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem with pictures of the violence on the border but characterized the Israeli response to the demonstrations in terms of self-defense.

“Every country must protect its borders,” Netanyahu wrote in a tweet. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that states its intention to destroy Israel and it sends thousands of people to breach the border fence to realize this goal. We will continue to act firmly to protect our sovereignty and our citizens.”

He was backed by the Trump administration, which blamed Hamas for the loss of life.

Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said people around the world condemning the violence need to understand that the Gaza demonstrations are not like protests in Europe.

“They do not take into consideration that this is a cover for a terrorist organization that is attempting to stop Israel from building a system that would stop their underground terror tunnels,” he said.

Asked if Israel could have used less-lethal methods to contain the protesters, most of whom were unarmed, Amidror said that such a question was a good example of those who “can sit in an air-conditioned office, drinking coffee, and give advice to the Israeli army that is facing off against many thousands of Palestinians.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on the edges of the enclave from mid-morning Monday. Many came to demonstrate peacefully, but some protesters appeared to be more aggressive than in previous weeks.

Gaza protests turn deadly as U.S. Embassy opens in Jerusalem

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts as others run from tear gas fired by Israeli forces. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Israeli snipers opened fire, ostensibly to prevent any breach of the border fence, and protesters began to fall. No Israeli soldiers were injured. 

In Gaza, Hamas backed the demonstrations, called to protest the loss of Palestinian homes and villages when Israel was formed in 1948.

Commenting in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, however, journalist Ben-Dror Yemini said the situation was “self-inflicted” and called on Palestinians to get over the events of 70 years ago.

“There was a Nakba. The Arabs of Palestine underwent expulsion. Tens of millions of people throughout the entire world, including Jews, underwent similar expulsion. But only the Palestinians adopted an ethos of rejectionism, victimhood, suffering and death,” he wrote. “They aren’t looking to improve things for themselves.”

Eglash reported from Jerusalem.

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