Tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters gathered at the Gaza border Saturday to mark the first anniversary of demonstrations calling on Israel to ease its blockade on the territory.
Gaza health officials report one 20-year-old and three 17-year-old protesters were killed by Israeli troops, and dozens of protesters were rushed to the hospitals with bullet wounds. The Israeli army said it was responding to protesters hurling stones and grenades at the border fence.
Despite the gunfire and grenades, the demonstrations were considered calmer than usual.
“This was not something extraordinary, and much, much, much less than what people were worried about,” retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser told NPR. People “thought we should expect some sort of escalation, a wide scale escalation. That has not happened.”
A few days before the protest, the two parties looked to be on the brink of a new wave of major fighting. On Monday, rocket fire from Gaza hit an Israeli home, injuring seven. The next day, Israel’s military retaliated with a series of airstrikes.
Expecting the violence to continue escalating on Saturday, Israel had beefed up its forces at the border in preparation for the demonstration.
But with both parties in the midst of negotiating a truce, the protests were more peaceful than in the past. In a statement, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the day of demonstrations “calm,” and the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza did not vow revenge for the deaths of the four protesters.
This past week, Egyptian mediators have been on the ground in both Israel and Gaza, hammering out a ceasefire that would involve Hamas reducing its violence in exchange for Israel relaxing its stronghold on Gaza’s economy. And despite some minor violence Sunday morning, with rockets fired from the Gaza strip into an open area in the south of Israel, Hamas claims it’s close to reaching a deal.
The protests were a departure from the demonstrations exactly a year earlier, where at least 16 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,000 injured.
The “Great March of Return” protests have been organized every week since the fatal march, an attempt to end Israel’s years-long blockade of Gaza and bring attention to Palestinians “right of return” to the homes lost when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
The year of protests has claimed the lives of more than 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier.