Israeli forces shot and killed eight Palestinians and wounded at least 200 in the second week of mass protests at the Gaza-Israel border. A local Palestinian journalist covering the protest was also reportedly shot in the stomach, despite having been wearing a vest clearly identifying himself as a member of the press.
Last Friday, 18 Palestinians were killed and over 700 wounded at a rally — largely organized by the Islamist extremist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip — meant to kick off weeks of demonstrations calling for the “right of return” for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their descendants who fled or were displaced from their homes after the creation of the state of Israel.
The tens of thousands of Palestinians who have taken part in the demonstrations are also protesting the crippling land, sea, and air blockade that Israel and Egypt have imposed on Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took power and kicked out the US-backed Palestinian Authority government.
The blockade, along with Hamas’s mismanagement, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison: Residents have access to only four hours of electricity per day, only 10 percent have access to clean drinking water, and the unemployment rate is a whopping 46 percent.
The vast majority of protesters are demonstrating peacefully in a tent city set up hundreds of meters from the heavily fortified border, but smaller groups of predominantly young men have rolled burning tires and thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at nearby Israeli troops.
Israeli forces — including 100 military snipers who were deployed to the border in advance of the protests — have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. No Israeli soldiers have so far been injured.
Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, had publicly stated before the demonstration that the military would not allow “mass infiltration” of Israel over the border with Gaza or tolerate damage to the border fence during the protests. “If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire,” he added.
But human rights groups say Israeli security forces are illegally using deadly force against protesters who don’t pose an imminent threat.
“This was an incident where soldiers were firing from behind the fence, separated by buffer zones and other objects, firing on individuals well behind the fence, in some cases retreating, not moving forward, or advancing without posing imminent threat,” Omar Shakir of the international group Human Rights Watch told the Washington Post after last Friday’s protest.
The bloodshed — the worst since the two sides fought a full-blown war in 2014 — has triggered calls from the United Nations and the European Union for international investigations into the incident. But a UN Security Council draft proposal calling for an independent inquiry into last Friday’s violence was blocked on Saturday by the United States.
The question now is whether these protests — and the Israeli response — will spark a broader conflict and send the death toll even higher.
Israelis and Palestinians have vastly different explanations of why these people were shot dead
Beyond the actual violence, there’s now a social media war going on, with each side releasing videos to bolster their explanations of what happened.
The Israeli military has rejected accusations of excessive use of force and said that it is acting “against violent protests and terrorists activities which included live fire towards its soldiers [and] attempts to infiltrate Israel.”
“The forces acted according to open-fire protocols and in a reasonable manner as they avoided harming civilians posted there by Hamas, who wish to embarrass Israel while risking those civilians,” an IDF spokesperson said in a statement after last Friday’s protest. “[A]nyone who partakes in violent protests puts themselves at risk.”
The IDF maintains that each of the protesters killed last week was engaged in violence and that at least 10 were members of Hamas or other militant groups. It also disputes the high number of injured, saying claims by the Gaza health ministry are exaggerated.
To try to reinforce its version of events, the IDF has also released video footage purporting to show two Palestinian men with assault rifles trying to break through the Israeli border fence last Friday night. Both men were killed by fire from Israeli tanks.
Palestinian media, for its part, aired a video that appears to show Israeli troops shooting an 18-year-old Palestinian in the back as he was running away from the border. Another video posted on social media shows a Palestinian protester being shot in the head as he was waving his arms in the air dozens of meters away from the border fence.
Hamas identified five of those killed last week as members of its military wing, but said they were merely taking part “in popular events side-by-side with their people.”
Protests have also reportedly broken out now in the West Bank near the cities of Nablus, Al-Bireh, Ramallah and Hebron. “The Health Ministry in Ramallah said two Palestinians have been wounded from rubber-tipped bullets fired by Israeli forces. One of those wounded was shot in the head, while the second sustained a gunshot wound to the leg,” Ha’aretz reports.
And the violence may not be over. On May 15, after six weeks of planned protests, Palestinian organizers say they will hold a mass march toward the Gaza border fence. Israeli officials fear that march could turn into an attempt to breach the fence itself — something Hamas leaders themselves have hinted at.
If that happens, it could very well escalate into a more prolonged conflict or even all-out war — which would be the fourth between Israel and Gaza in just a decade.