Thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border on Friday for the second week of protests that they have called the “Great Return March.” Amid warnings from Israel and the US to stay at least 500 meters from the border, Palestinians brought masses of tires to burn to shield their movements from the IDF. According to Gaza's health ministry, by nightfall seven Palestinians had been killed and at least one thousand injured in the Friday protests and riots.By ten in the morning, fires and black smoke were already lit and billowing at two places in the northern Gaza Strip near the town of Beit Hanoun. Hundreds of Palestinians could be seen on a road leading to the border, and food trucks and camping equipment festooned the road. Most of the Palestinians appeared to be onlookers. At a berm constructed by the IDF along the border, the army watched the burning tires and Palestinians.Palestinian media reported that dozens of ambulances had deployed a “field hospital” near Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. In Khan Yunis hundreds of men with tires were filmed. Shehab media’s twitter account claimed a Palestinian was wounded in Jabalia in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.Closer to Gaza City the protesters achieved what they wanted around two in the afternoon when the winds shifted slightly and blew the smoke toward IDF positions. The army fired tear gas to keep some of the protesters back who had come closer to the fence. One young man could be seen on a mound of earth near the border waving a Palestinian flag before he was engulfed in the thick fumes. Another man threw a Molotov cocktail at the fence. Stun grenades and sniper fire could be heard. Israeli fire crews were deployed to try to spray water across the fence at the fires. A giant fan was also brought up to blow the smoke away, but neither were effective.Palestinians on loud speakers chanted religious slogans and someone could be heard using a loudspeaker to give out gas masks and also sell food. The combination of the three symbolized the larger protest movement. Most of the thousands who came appeared to be onlookers, not interested in approaching the fence. In a major difference from last Friday, both the Palestinians and the IDF appeared to hold back. Last Friday 17 were killed.
Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan came to see the protests. “One thing people don’t appreciate if they haven’t seen it is that this is not a peaceful demonstration,” he said. Despite Hamas’s claims, he said that seeing the clashes close up revealed the reality. “This is a deliberate and specific intent by terrorist organizations to penetrate the state of Israel and kill civilians and the IDF has no option except to use lethal force to stop such a dangerous threat.” Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus, the International Spokesman and head of social media of the IDF, emphasized that ten of the Palestinians killed last week were active Hamas members. Speaking to media assembled near Nahal Oz across from Gaza City, he said the demonstrations were not peaceful and their sole intention was to use the riots as cover to threaten Israeli communities along the border. “We hold Hamas responsible for any act of aggression that comes from Gaza,” he asserted. He also said that demonstrations were smaller than the week before. According to a Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, 150 had been injured by mid-day. The spokesman said the number had climbed to 252 by mid-afternoon and 780 by nightfall. The Palestinian Red Crescent said that 446 had been injured, of which 218 had been hit by live fire. Seven Palestinians were reported killed according to Gaza-based sources.Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said that the people of Gaza had shown that they were dedicated to the “right of return…inevitably we will return. With God’s will, it will be in the near future.” He also claimed that despite Israel’s “siege” of Gaza the local people had not turned against Hamas, and the turnout for the demonstrations was proof.The protests continue to cause concern internationally. Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations focusing on Israel and the Palestinians, urged Palestinian protesters to remain peaceful. The EU’s office in Israel called for “utmost restraint” on both sides and encouraged Israel to “respect right to peaceful protest.” The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also urged on Thursday for “all parties to refrain from any act that could lead to further violence or place civilians, especially children, in harms way.Overall the demonstrations on Friday were not only smaller than the week before but saw a major reduction in clashes with the IDF. It appears many of the protesters heeded calls to remain several hundred meters from the fence. The threat to burn thousands of tired to blacken the sky also did not materialize. Instead there were five localized protests and the smoke generally was not large enough to obscure protesters who sought to get to the fence.Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.
Former Commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan Col. (Ret.) Richard Kemp offers his insights on the events taking place on the Gaza border. (Seth J. Frantzman)