GAZA CITY, Palestine: Thousands of Palestinians staged a mass protest on Gaza’s sealed border with Israel for a third consecutive Friday, as part of a pressure campaign to break their territory’s decade-old blockade.
Israeli live fire from across the border fence killed a 28-year-old Palestinian man and wounded at least 223, Gaza health officials said.
The death brought to 34 the number of protesters killed in two weeks, with more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli fire since March 30, they said.
The marches have been organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, but large turnouts on two preceding Fridays were also driven by desperation among the territory’s 2 million residents who have been enduring a crippling border closure by Israel and Egypt since 2007.
“We want to live like everyone else in the world,” said 37-year-old construction worker Omar Hamada, an unemployed father of eight. “We came here so the world can see us and know that life here is miserable, and that there should be a solution.”
Turnout seemed to be significantly lower than on previous Fridays.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said that 969 people were hurt, including 223 by live fire and the rest by tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets or shrapnel. Fifteen of the wounded were in serious conditions, including a Gaza journalist. The count also included 67 minors and 20 women, health officials said.
Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence.
No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against unarmed demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.
Most of the demonstrators assembled at five tent camps located several hundred meters from the border fence.
Smaller groups moved closer to the fence, throwing stones, torching tires and burning Israeli flags, U.S. flags, as well as posters of Israel’s prime minister and defense minister. Large plumes of black smoke from burning tires rose into the sky.
The military said soldiers responded “with riot dispersal means and are firing in accordance with the rules of engagement.”
It distributed a photo of a man “wielding an item suspected of being an explosive device,” but an AFP journalist who witnessed the event said it was a firework that did not explode.
Gaza has endured a border blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas overran the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections.
The blockade has driven Gaza deeper into poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and electricity available for less than five hours a day.
The marchers are protesting the siege, but are also asserting what they say is a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about whether they plan an eventual mass breach of the border fence. The protests are to culminate in a large rally on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation. Palestinians mourn the event as their “Nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.
“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said 37-year-old civil servant Ahmad as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.
Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished enclave, he is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel. “No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmad, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.