Planned protests that have now claimed the lives of 29 Palestinian demonstrators and injured over 1,600 more continued in Gaza this week, with more demonstrations expected to carry on despite warnings from Israel of further steps to quell violence.
On Friday, March 30, Palestinian protesters began marches at five camps erected along the Palestinian-Israeli boundary at Gaza commemorating Israel’s 1976 announcement of land appropriation for the construction of settlements in northern Israel.
Christened the Great March of Return, an estimated 17,000 Palestinians were involved. Several thousand turned out from the camps to confront Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as the protests devolved into riots.
To counter apparently violent protesters, Israel doubled its troops presence in the area, deployed armored vehicles, sharpshooters and a drone which dropped tear gas on rioters.
IDF troops shot dead 18 Palestinian protesters after marchers burned tires, and began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. Another 1,000 rioters were reported injured in the melee. Israeli officials have described the dead as members of the terror group Hamas.
The response to the deaths conflicted: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel and asked the U.N. to probe what he described amounted to a “war crime.”
In contrast, an IDF spokesperson declared the dead were shot in self-defense and those involved were attempting to scale or damage the border fence.
Despite the widespread disturbances and deaths, Palestinians are preparing more rounds of demonstrations until May 15 with serious participation expected on Fridays.
According to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, Palestinians protesting along the Israeli border “posed no imminent threat to life”.
“Israeli soldiers were not merely using excessive force, but were apparently acting on orders that all but ensured a bloody military response to the Palestinian demonstrations,” said HRW’s Middle East director, Eric Goldstein.
Commenting on preparatory measures to thwart further violence, IDF spokesman General Ronen Manelis said IDF troops used only “precision fire” to turn back Palestinian rioters and outlined steps to stop violence: “We will use the same forces and the same capabilities.”
Although Israeil officials were engaged in back channels with Egypt to control demonstrations, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov encouraged discipline on both sides, saying: “Israeli forces should exercise maximum restraint, and Palestinians should avoid friction at the Gaza fence.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
[Al Jazeera] [The Times of Israel] [BBC] [NBC News] [Photo courtesy JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images via CNN]