(Bloomberg) -- At least seven Palestinians were killed as thousands of Gazans gathered to protest near the border with Israel for a second straight Friday, clashing with soldiers amid thick clouds of smoke from burning tires.
Hamas, the militant group that rules the impoverished coastal strip, called on protesters to turn out in larger numbers than last week, when Israeli forces shot dead 16 Palestinians in Gaza’s bloodiest day since a 2014 war. This time, protesters sought to thwart Israeli snipers by burning mounds of tires and using mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays into soldiers’ eyes, as some pelted soldiers with rocks and firebombs. The Israeli army said it used water cannons to put out fires, a giant fan to dispel the tire smoke and live rounds against people who tried to breach the fence.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said seven people had been killed as of early evening and nearly 300 injured by gunfire. The crowd was about half the size of last week, with the Israeli army estimating turnout at about 20,000. Hamas officials said fear of smoke inhalation from the tires may have kept crowds small.
The protests aim to highlight the Palestinians’ plight as refugees 70 years after Israel’s creation and as the U.S. prepares to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in mid-May. The demonstrations have struck a chord with many Palestinians who see little to be optimistic about as Gaza’s economy sinks under the weight of war damage, an embargo enforced by Egypt and Israel, and sanctions imposed by the Palestinian government in the West Bank.
Hamas says the campaign aims to reclaim all of what is now Israel. Considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Europe, Hamas adopted the protests after its rocket threat was largely neutralized by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system and its attack tunnels are being rendered obsolete by an underground barrier Israel is building along the border.
“Today we’re sending a message that our struggle is without arms and guns, and we will wait and see if the world receives the message and pressures Israel to stop its crimes against our people,” senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said Friday at a rally in Gaza City. “If the world fails to do so, then we’ll be obliged to use our arms.”
Tha’er Hasouna, a 20-year-old student from Gaza, said he turned out to support Palestinians’ demand to return to homes they fled or were expelled from when Israel was created 70 years ago. Most Israelis consider the demand for a “right of return” as a call to eradicate the Jewish state.
“I came here to join the marches and rallies to tell the world that we have legitimate rights and need to gain these rights back, mainly the ‘right of return,’” said Hasouna, adding that his family is originally from Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv. “I know that we can’t do it because we are not an army and can’t defy Israel. Therefore, we’re joining popular peaceful rallies hoping that our message will reach the world.”
Israel says it has no problem with peaceful demonstrators, but accuses militants of using civilians as cover to attack soldiers or try to lay explosives at the border. The army said it foiled several attempts to breach the border fence Friday.
“Those who get close to the fence will be seen as a target,” Nitzan Nuriel, a former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, said of Israel’s preparations Thursday. “We’re trying to send a message: You can demonstrate as much as you want but you can’t touch the fence.”
U.S. peace envoy Jason Greenblatt urged the organizers to seek more constructive solutions to Gaza’s distress.
“We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protestors -- including children -- to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed,” Greenblatt said in a statement released by the State Department.
Palestinians accuse the U.S. of adopting Israel’s positions on the conflict. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with the White House after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and has pledged to reject the peace plan the U.S. is formulating.
Palestinian leaders say Israel has fired indiscriminately at peaceful protesters, and Abbas last week called for international protection for Gaza. The U.S. blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an inquiry into Israel’s actions.
Israeli officials said troops fire only at those actively instigating violence, noting that almost all the dead have been military-age males. Hamas this week began offering $3,000 to relatives of those killed by Israeli fire and several hundred dollars to those injured. Palestinians view such “martyr” payments as welfare, while Israel says they’re an incentive to terrorism.
Palestinians plan to cap their protests with a march to the border May 15 -- the date they mark the “Nakba,” or the catastrophe of their displacement at Israel’s creation -- which Israel fears will become a mass attempt to breach the fence.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.