Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Clashes erupted as tens of thousands of Gazans marched near the Israeli border in a major protest on Friday, leaving 12 Palestinians dead and hundreds more wounded in one of the worst days of violence in recent years.
Late in the day, Israel’s military targeted three Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip with tank fire and an air strike after what it said was an attempted shooting attack against soldiers along the border that caused no injuries.
Protesters, including women and children, had earlier gathered at multiple sites throughout the blockaded territory, which is flanked by Israel along its eastern and northern borders.
Smaller numbers approached within a few hundred metres (yards) of the heavily fortified border fence, with Israeli troops using tear gas and live fire to force them back.
Israeli security forces also used a drone to fire tear gas toward those along the border from overhead in one of the first uses of the device, a police spokesman said.
The health ministry in Gaza reported 12 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces throughout the day. More than 1,200 were wounded by various means including tear gas, it said.
Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, as did Turkey.
Israel’s military alleged that the main protests were being used as cover by militants to either break through the border or carry out attacks.
“It is not a peaceful demonstration,” an Israeli military official told journalists.
“There was no small number of attempts to damage the fence and cross” the border, she added.
The army said it estimated some 30,000 demonstrators were taking part in the protests.
It said that “rioters are rolling burning tyres and hurling firebombs and rocks at the security fence and at (Israeli) troops, who are responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.”
– ‘Playing with your life’ –
Protesters were demanding hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 be allowed to return.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya attended the protest, believed to be the first time he had gone so close to the border in years.
Far smaller protests broke out in parts of the occupied West Bank.
On Friday evening, Gazan leaders called on protesters to retreat from the border area until Saturday, with the demonstration planned to extend six weeks, until the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem around May 14.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas also declared Saturday a day of national mourning.
The upcoming embassy move has added to tensions surrounding the march.
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December has infuriated Palestinians, who claim its annexed eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The protest also began as Jewish Israelis prepared to mark the Passover holiday, which began Friday evening.
Israel announced a “closed military zone in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip,” accusing its Islamist rulers Hamas of using the lives of civilians “for the purpose of terror”.
It deployed reinforcements, including more than 100 special forces snipers, for fear of mass attempts to break through the security fence.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a Twitter post directed to Gazans in both Hebrew and Arabic that “Hamas’s leadership is playing with your life”.
Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
– Rare family protest –
Protests along the border are common, often culminating in young Palestinian men throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who respond with tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.
The “March of Return” protest is different because it is intended to include families with women and children camping near the border for weeks.
Five main camp sites have been set up spanning the length of the frontier, from near the Erez border crossing in the north to Rafah where it meets the Egyptian border in the south.
Cultural events are planned in the larger communal tents, including traditional Palestinian dabke dancing, while tens of thousands of meals were to be handed out on Friday, organisers said.
A young couple were married near one of the camps on Thursday evening.
Saeed Juniya had erected a small tent a few hundred metres from the border fence east of Gaza City, where he was accompanied by his wife and children.
“We are determined and not scared as we are not doing something wrong. The people are demanding their land and to return to their country,” he said.
Organisers say the camps will remain in place until May 15 when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, of the 1948 creation of Israel with the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees and the protest is calling for them to be allowed to return to land that is now Israel.
Washington’s plans to launch its new embassy around the same time, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Israeli state, have further stoked Palestinian anger.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, on Thursday labelled the protest an “organised planned provocation” and reiterated “Israel’s right to defend its sovereignty and protect its citizens.”
The launch of the protests comes as Palestinians mark Land Day, commemorating the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.