At least 37 Palestinians were killed during mass protests along the Gaza border on Monday, marking the deadliest day of violence there since a devastating 2014 cross-border war and casting a pall over Israel’s festive inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem.
In a show of anger fuelled by the embassy move, protesters set tires on fire, sending plumes of black smoke into the air, and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border. The Israeli military said its troops had come under fire, and accused protesters of trying to break through the border fence. It said troops shot and killed three Palestinians who were trying to plant a bomb.
By afternoon, at least 37 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed while at least 772 were wounded, including 27 critically, Palestinian health officials said.
The Hamas-led protest in Gaza was to be the biggest yet in a weekslong campaign against a decade-old blockade of the territory. The march was also directed at the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem later Monday. The relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv, a key campaign promise of President Donald Trump, has infuriated the Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as a future capital.
“A great day for Israel,” Trump tweeted early Monday. The president appeared in a video message at Monday’s opening, which was attended by his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who both serve as White House advisers. Kushner leads the Trump Mideast team.
Monday marked the biggest showdown in recent weeks between Israel’s military and Gaza’s Hamas rulers along the volatile border. The sides have largely observed a ceasefire since the 2014 war — their third in a decade.
It is the culmination of a campaign, led by the Islamic militant group Hamas and fuelled by despair among Gaza’s two million people, to break the decade-old border blockade of the territory by Israel and Egypt. Since weekly border marches began in late March, 79 Palestinian protesters have been killed and more than 2,300 wounded by Israeli army fire. Hamas said four members, including three security men, were among the dead Monday.
Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas figure, said the mass border protests against Israel will continue “until the rights of the Palestinian people are achieved.”
“Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will be a disaster on the American administration and a black day in the history of the American people because they are partners with the occupation and its aggression against the Palestinian people.”
Hamas leaders have suggested a border breach is possible Monday, something Israel has vowed to prevent at any cost.
Most of the casualties were in the southern Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah. Israeli forces were firing volleys of tear gas to disperse the crowds, and the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard. Sirens were constantly wailing as the wounded were carried to nearby ambulances. Groups of young activists repeatedly approached the fence, but were quickly scattered by gunfire and tear gas.
Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesperson, said the army had bolstered its front-line forces along the border, but also set up additional “layers” of security in and around neighbouring communities to defend Israeli civilians in case of a mass breach. He said there already had been several “significant attempts” to break through the fence.
“Even if the fence is breached, we will be able to protect Israeli civilians from attempts to massacre or kidnap or kill them,” he said.
In a statement, the army said troops had shot and killed three Palestinians who attempted to plant a bomb along the fence. It also said an aircraft had targeted a Hamas post in northern Gaza after Israeli troops came under fire.
The timing of Monday’s events was deeply symbolic, both to Israel and the Palestinians.
The U.S. said it chose the date to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.
But it also marks the anniversary of what Palestinians call their Nakba, or catastrophe, a reference to the uprooting of hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s independence.
A majority of Gaza’s two million people are descendants of refugees, and the protests have been billed as the “Great March of Return.”
Leaflet warnings dropped from sky
In one of the border areas east of Gaza City, Mohammed Hamami, a 40-year-old civil servant, joined a crowd of hundreds of protesters, along with his mother and five children.
“Today we are here to send a message to Israel and its allies that we will never give up on our land,” he said.
Some protesters moved to within about 150 metres of the border fence. A reporter saw two men who tried to advance further being shot in the legs by Israeli troops.
Clouds of black smoke from burning tires rose into the air. Earlier Monday, Israeli drones dropping incendiary material had pre-emptively set ablaze some of the tires collected in advance by activists.
Protesters have used the thick smoke as cover against Israeli snipers perched on high sand berms on the other side of the border.
Leaflets dropped over Gaza by army jets warned that those approaching the border “jeopardize” their lives. The warning said the army is “prepared to face all scenarios and will act against every attempt to damage the security fence or harm IDF soldiers or Israeli civilians.”
In Jerusalem, top Trump administration officials attended events linked to the inauguration of the embassy later Monday.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said it was a U.S. “national security priority” to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But the current location is said to be temporary — it has been the existing consulate in Jerusalem — and it has been reported that in the short term, just a few dozen of hundreds of American embassy staff will be moving from Tel Aviv.
Trump’s decision to go forward with a campaign promise came after previous presidents had signed a waiver postponing the move, citing national security.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community. The Palestinians seek the city’s eastern half as the capital of a future state.
‘Real estate dealers, not leaders’
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties with the Trump administration and declared it unfit to remain in its role as the sole mediator in peace talks.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, blasted the Trump administration Monday, saying Trump had violated a promise to hold off on moving the embassy to give peace talks a chance and that his administration is “based on lies.”
Erekat said the Trump administration has “become part of the problem, not part of the solution.” He suggested Trump’s Mideast team is unqualified, saying “the world needs real leaders, and those [White House officials] are real estate dealers, not leaders.”
Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as a capital and view the Trump administration’s change in policy as a blatant show of pro-Israel bias. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Trump’s decision to upend decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In the West Bank, several dozen Palestinian stone throwers clashed with Israeli troops on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with no immediate reports of injuries. Earlier Monday, several thousand gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah to protest the embassy.
Only Guatemala and Paraguay have said they will follow suit with the U.S. decision. Most of the world maintains embassies in Tel Aviv, saying the Jerusalem issue must first be resolved.
European foreign ministers said Monday the embassy move was unwise and likely to exacerbate tensions. Their comments come after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania blocked the full 28-nation European Union from publishing a statement about the U.S. move.