Israel asked to avoid lethal force as Gaza protest resumes
Palestinians converged on the Gaza border with Israel for a fifth round of weekly protests Friday, some throwing stones and burning tires, as a top U.N. official urged Israel to refrain from using excessive force against them.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Israeli troops have not heeded warnings by the United Nations and others, repeatedly using lethal force against unarmed protesters over the past month.
Since the Gaza marches began, 35 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli soldiers firing from across the border fence, according to Gaza health officials. Among those killed were four minors, including a 14-year-old boy.
“The loss of life is deplorable, and the staggering number of injuries caused by live ammunition only confirms the sense that excessive force has been used against demonstrators – not once, not twice, but repeatedly,” the commissioner said.
The marches, aimed in part at trying to break a decade-old border blockade, have been organized by Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers but have also been driven by widespread despair in the coastal territory of 2 million people.
Since late March, thousands have demonstrated every Friday in five protest tent camps, each set up several hundred meters (yards) from the border fence. Smaller groups have moved toward the fence, throwing stones, burning tires or hurling firebombs.
Israeli soldiers, including snipers taking cover behind sand berms, have fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and live rounds.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds of protesters gathered at a tent camp east of Gaza City. Some burned tires and threw stones near the fence. Israeli troops fired intensive volleys of tear gas, some canisters landing 300 meters (yards) inside Gaza. A similar scene played out in another camp in southeastern Gaza.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said 50 people were wounded, including at least 16 by live fire.
Israel’s military has said troops are under orders to target “instigators,” but has also warned that anyone approaching or trying to damage the fence risks his life.
Rights groups have said such open-fire rules are unlawful because they allow soldiers to use potentially lethal force in situations where their lives are not in danger.
Israel says it has the right to defend its border, including nearby communities. It accuses Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, of trying to carry out attacks under the guise of mass protests.
Israeli officials have said that some of those protesting at the border over the past few weeks tried to damage the border fence or plant explosives along it. Others have hurled improvised explosives, firebombs, or flown kites attached to burning rags to set Israeli fields on fire on the other side of the fence.
A group of Palestinian activists calling themselves “the tires unit” arrived Friday on a truck laden with old tires. A van with loudspeakers mounted on its top followed the truck with chants and applause. Tires were set on fire filling the air with thick smoke.
With hooks and a long rope, the activists pulled at parts of the barbed wire adjacent to the border fence.
The U.N. human rights commissioner said Friday that “it is difficult to see” how throwing stones, burning tires or even hurling firebombs from a distance at heavily protected security forces in defensive positions could be seen as life-threatening.
Israel and Egypt imposed the Gaza blockade in 2007, in response to a violent takeover of the territory by Hamas, which had won Palestinian parliament elections a year earlier. The blockade has gutted Gaza’s economy, driving up unemployment and leaving two-thirds of young people without jobs.
Gaza organizers say that in addition to compelling an end to the blockade, the marches are meant to press for the “right of return” of refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel. Two-thirds of Gaza residents are descendants of refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation, and march organizers see May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding, as a key target day.
They have made conflicting statements about whether they plan a mass border breach at some point.