The IDF warned that it could widen its military response to the protest that Palestinians launched Friday against the Gaza border fence, which left at least 15 Palestinians dead and upwards of 1,400 wounded on the first day of what is billed as a six-week event.IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis said Hamas, which controls Gaza, was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence would likely continue along the border until May 15.
“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues, we will have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters in a phone briefing.Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a national day of mourning and a general strike was called across the West Bank. Thousands in Gaza marched through the streets at funerals for those killed.Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, announced that five of the Palestinians killed were Kassam members, while the IDF said that at least 10 of those killed were affiliated with terrorist organizations.The protest continued on Saturday, but on a much smaller scale. According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, some 49 people were injured.On Friday, over 30,000 Palestinians gathered along the 65-km. Gaza border fence. Tents were erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for the “right of return” for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.Families brought their children to the encampments just a few hundred meters from the fence. The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the Nakba or “Catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948 when the State of Israel was created.In Gaza, the protest was dubbed “The March of Return” and some of the tents bore names of the refugees’ original villages, written in Arabic and Hebrew alike.Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”In a statement, the IDF accused Hamas of “cynically exploiting women and children [by] sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives”.The military said that more than 100 army sharpshooters were deployed in the area to prevent any protesters from infiltrating into Israel.The IDF said its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the security fence, some of them rolling burning tires and throwing rocks.It provided the media with videos that showed violence and attempted infiltration. It added that two of the Palestinians who tried to break through the fence also fired on IDF soldiers who responded with tank fire. According to Gazan health officials, the two Palestinians were killed.The health officials also said Israeli forces mostly used gunfire against the protesters, as well as tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had deployed a drone over at least one location to drop tear gas.The officials said one of the dead was aged 16 and at least 400 people were wounded by live gunfire, while others were struck by rubber bullets or treated for tear gas inhalation.The protest presented a rare show of unity among rival Palestinian factions in the impoverished Gaza Strip, where pressure has been building on Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement to end a decade-old rift. Reconciliation efforts to end the feud have been faltering for months.The demonstration was launched on Land Day, an annual commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in the Galilee in 1976.Clashes erupted between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces on Friday across the West Bank.Israeli forces dispersed Palestinians with dispersal means in Jericho, Bethlehem, El-Bireh and near Nablus.
Palestinians mark "Land Day" with protests on Israel-Gaza border (Reuters)