Palestinian health officials say that at least seven Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli troops Friday, capping a week of the largest demonstrations and worst violence that Gaza has seen in years.
This brings the total number of dead to more than 27 since the protests began last week, Palestinian officials say. On Friday, thousands of Palestinians once again gathered to demonstrate near the border with Israel “for the right to return to lands in today’s Israel,” as NPR’s Daniel Estrin reported from the scene.
Palestinians say this is a peaceful demonstration. In a series of protest encampments, families fly kites and food trucks are parked to support the demonstration.
Israel accuses the Hamas militant group, which controls Gaza, of trying to turn the border area into a combat zone. Daniel said he heard gunfire and saw tear gas in the area immediately next to the border. Black smoke billowed from the area, he said, as young Palestinians brought tires down to the border to burn. Some threw rocks at the soldiers.
“Palestinians are actually calling today the ‘Day of Tires,’ because they said they were going to burn tires to create a smokescreen so that Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border fence wouldn’t be able to see them,” Daniel added.
Among those reported wounded today was a Palestinian photojournalist, as Daniel reported. “Photos show him wearing a protective vest marked PRESS.”
Israel maintains it is simply protecting its border and its troops. It has released video that appears to show several Palestinians trying to break through the border fence.
Rights groups have criticized Israel for disproportionate use of force against people who pose no immediate threat. Videos circulated on social media appear to show Israeli forces firing at Palestinians some distance away from the fence.
And while Hamas is vocally backing these demonstrations, which are intended to last six weeks, many Palestinians are participating because of the dismal living conditions in Gaza.
The area has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt for a decade. Gazans get only a few hours of electricity every day and have extremely limited water. The unemployment rate is at more than 40 percent.
“Palestinians said last week when the protest began, hundreds were injured by Israeli fire. Israel has disputed that, said that only tens of Palestinians were injured,” Daniel reported. At a hospital he visited – one of many treating wounded people in Gaza – “they said that they had had at least 100 people in surgery for serious wounds.”
Protest organizers are vowing to continue demonstrating for six weeks, until mid-May.