Journalist among 9 killed as 20,000 Palestinians protest at Gaza border
Deadly clashes on Gaza border erupt from Palestinian protest
Raf Sanchez, Gaza city – Sat 7 APRIL 2018
At least nine Palestinians, including a journalist, were killed by Israeli forces on the Gaza border on Friday, as thousands of demonstrators burned tyres and sent towers of thick black smoke billowing over the isolated Mediterranean enclave.
The latest fatalities mean that 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli snipers since Gaza residents last week began “the Great March of Return”, a series of weekly border protests demanding the right to return to their ancestral homes in what is today Israel.
Around 20,000 Palestinians flocked to five protests site along the border, according to the Israeli military. A 16-year-old and a well-known Palestinian journalist were among those killed, Gaza health officials said. The health ministry said 408 Palestinians had been taken to hospitals and medical centres for treatment. Hundreds more suffered other injuries, including tear gas inhalation, the officials said.
Early on Saturday, Palestinian health officials confirmed that Yasser Murtaga had died from a gunshot wound sustained while covering demonstrations near the Israeli border in Khuzaa. The area was the scene of large protests Friday, and was covered in thick black smoke.
Murtaga was over 100 meters (yards) from the border, wearing a flak jacket marked “press” and holding his camera when he was shot in an exposed area just below the armpit. Journalists were in the area as protesters were setting tires on fire.
The Israeli military has said it fired only at “instigators” involved in attacks on soldiers or the border fence. It had no immediate comment.
Demonstrators burned hundreds of rubber tyres all along the Israeli frontier, creating a wall of smoke which they hoped would blind Israeli marksmen. Israeli forces used fire hoses to try to put out the flames and large turbine fans to keep the noxious smoke from blowing into Israel.
The overwhelming majority of the protesters were unarmed and the small handful who did carry weapons were wielding small axes, knives, or heavy shears to try to cut through the Israel fence. The Telegraph saw no firearms in the crowds.
The Israeli military alleged that Hamas operatives had tried to use the chaos of the riots to damage the border fence. A spokesman said there were at least four attempts to throw improvised bombs towards Israeli forces.
No Israelis were killed or wounded during either Friday’s demonstrations or the clashes last week.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, had earlier appealed to the Israeli military to use “extreme caution with the use of force in order to avoid casualties” among Palestinian demonstrators.
Human rights groups have criticised the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) for their policy of directing sniper fire on those who come too close to the fence, arguing that lethal force is only permissible to counter an imminent threat to life.
Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said Israel was “using less lethal means to the greatest extent possible before using lethal means”. He said Israeli forces were justified in opening fire to prevent Palestinians breaking through the Gaza border fence.
“The reason we are so adamant about the integrity of the fence is because it is all that separates thousands of rioters from the nearest Israeli target, which could be a kibbutz, or a farm, or other Israeli communities, or Israeli soldiers,” he said.
The protests on Friday were significantly less bloody than last week, when 16 Palestinians were killed during the day and others died later from their injuries. The IDF said that it had not changed its rules of engagement but that fewer demonstrators had attempted to breach the fence.
Palestinians at a protest site east of Gaza City said the vast plumes of tyre smoke had also reduced the killings. “The burning tyres helped us because snipers can’t see us. But also people did not go as far as this week because they did not want to go past the smoke,” said one man.
Many women and children stood amid the crowds at the border and young Palestinians flew colourful kites into the blackened skies, where they shared airspace with Israeli surveillance drones.
Israel claims that Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the US and UK, was behind the demonstrations. Several senior Hamas leaders didi visit protest camps during the day on Friday.
But most of the people gathered at the border said they were not affiliated with Hamas or any other faction. All said they were there to protest for the Right of Return, while many unemployed young men said they were also simply there for the excitement.
“It’s useless, we’re resisting alone,” said Ali Abu Hasira, a 23-year-old as he gestured towards Israeli forces in the distance. “The Arab countries have abandoned us.”
Several protesters burned images of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, after he said the Jewish people had the right to a state of their own in the Middle East.
The protests are expected to continue every Friday until May 15, when Palestinians commemorate “the Nakba”, the Arabic word for catastrophe, when they were displaced from their homes in 1948.
The IDF said they were prepared for weekly confrontations but were encouraged that the protests were smaller than they had been on March 30. “We are not going to tolerate riots like that being a weekly Friday occurrence,” said Lt Col Conricus.
At least six journalists were shot and wounded, according to a statement from the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. A spokeswoman for the Israeli army had no immediate comment on the statement.