Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Israeli shelling killed a Palestinian farmer in Gaza early on Friday, the enclave’s health ministry said, just hours before the launch of mass protests along the border.
A second Palestinian was wounded by the tank fire near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, a ministry spokesman said.
The ministry identified the dead man as Omar Samour, 27. Witnesses said he was working his land near the border when the shells hit.
An Israeli army spokesman said: “Two suspects approached the security fence along the southern Gaza Strip and began operating suspiciously.
“In response an (Israeli) tank fired towards them,” he said, adding that the army was aware of reports of a death.
The shelling came just hours before the opening of large protest camps near the border, which have prompted the Israeli army to deploy reinforcements, including more than 100 special forces snipers, for fear of mass attempts to break through the security fence.
Hundreds of people, including women and children, are expected to march to the camps in an event dubbed “The Great March of Return,” which has the backing of Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
The protest camps are expected to remain in place for more than six weeks in the runup to the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem around May 14.
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the disputed city as Israel’s capital in December has infuriated Palestinians, who claim its annexed eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot has warned the Gaza protests pose the most serious risk of renewed conflict since he took up his post in 2015.
– 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 involves hundreds of Palestinians, including whole families with women and children, camping along the border for weeks.
Five main camp sites have been set up spanning the length of the heavily fortified 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 will be handed out on Friday, organisers said.
A young couple were married near one of the camps on Thursday evening.
The launch of the protests comes as Palestinians mark Land Day, commemorating the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.
It is expected to begin on Friday morning but swell after the main weekly Muslim prayers at midday.
Organisers say the camps will remain in place until May 15 when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their land or were expelled during the war that led to the creation of Israel in 1948.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s 2 million residents are refugees or their descendants 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.”