Tens of thousands of Gaza protesters join anniversary march

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have gathered at rallying points near the Israeli border to mark the first anniversary of weekly protests in the Gaza Strip, as Israeli troops fired tear gas and opened fire at small crowds of activists who approached the border fence.

At least 10 protesters were wounded by live fire, according to Palestinian medical officials.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers had pledged to keep the crowds a safe distance from the fence as Egyptian mediators tried to cement a ceasefire agreement.

Dozens of volunteers in fluorescent vests were deployed to restrain demonstrators, while ambulances lined up in front of clinics and police supervised encampments erected far from the fence.

Israeli soldiers deploy on the border (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)
Israeli soldiers deploy on the border (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

As the crowds swelled throughout the afternoon in response to Hamas’s calls for a large participation, dozens of protesters approached the fence, unfurling Palestinian flags and throwing rocks and explosives towards Israeli troops.

The soldiers responded with tear gas and live fire to disperse the crowds.

The protest came at a sensitive time for Israel and Hamas.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of ex-army chiefs who have criticised what they say is his failed Gaza policy.

Benjamin Netanyahu (Susan Walsh/AP)
Benjamin Netanyahu (Susan Walsh/AP)

In the final stretch of the campaign, he needs to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, without seeming to make concessions to Hamas.

He took heavy criticism this week for what was seen as a soft response to renewed rocket fire out of Gaza.

Hamas faces growing unrest in Gaza as a result of worsening conditions after more than a decade of Israeli and Egyptian border closures.

The fence protests, which began exactly a year ago, have been aimed in large part at breaking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, but have not delivered major improvements.

The Israeli military estimated 30,000 Palestinians were gathered at the marches.

“The rioters are hurling rocks and setting tyres on fire. In addition, a number of grenades and explosive devices have been hurled at the Gaza Strip security fence,” it said in a statement.

It added that soldiers were responding with “riot dispersal means” and firing in line with standard procedures.

Gaza health officials said earlier that Israeli troops had shot and killed a Palestinian man near the fence, hours before the rally.

Relatives mourn over the body of 21-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Saad (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Relatives mourn over the body of 21-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Saad (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Gaza’s health ministry said Mohammed Saad, 21, was hit by shrapnel in the head.

The army said about 200 Palestinians “rioted during the night along the fence” and that the army used riot dispersal means.

A Gaza hospital worker said Mr Saad was a member of the so-called “night disturbance unit”, which routinely burns tyres, flashes laser lights and detonates explosives near the fence at night to distract soldiers and disturb residents of nearby Israeli communities.

The marches near the fence began a year ago, initially organised by grassroots activists calling for a mass return to their ancestors’ homes in what is now Israel.

Two-thirds of Gaza’s two million people are refugees or descendants of refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.

Hamas quickly took the lead in the protests, using the gatherings to call for an easing of the blockade.

The blockade, imposed after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, has devastated Gaza’s economy. Unemployment is over 50%, ground water has become undrinkable and electricity has turned into an intermittent luxury.

The border marches routinely ended in confrontations, with Palestinians burning tyres, hurling fire bombs or setting off explosives and Israeli troops firing live rounds and tear gas.

According to a Gaza rights group, 196 Palestinians were killed in the demonstrations over the past year, including 41 minors, and thousands were wounded by live fire.

An Israeli soldier was also killed in the context of the marches.

- Press Association

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