Hundreds of Palestinians attempted to breach the fence separating the Gaza Strip and Israel on Friday, according to the Israeli military, and Palestinian authorities reported that three people were killed in the latest weekly clashes at the border.
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Protesters attempted to tear down the fence near the Karni Crossing in northern Gaza and set it on fire by rolling burning tires into it, according to the military, which said it repelled the protesters.
Two of Friday’s three deaths were a result of the incident, “according to Palestinian reports and our current assessments,” said Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the military, who called it a “serious assault” on the fence and said it was “clearly orchestrated by Hamas leaders on the ground.” Hamas rules Gaza.
Hazem Qasem, a Hamas spokesman, denied the allegation. “Ordinary Gazans made it, not members of any movement,” he said.
Palestinian health authorities said 883 Palestinians were injured in clashes with the military—including 174 by live fire. At least four of the injured were journalists, said the head of Gaza’s Government Media Office Salama Maroof.
Protesters have attempted to breach the fence in earlier protests as well, but this was the first time that such large numbers were involved. At other locations along the fence, protesters threw firebombs and rocks and flew kites with “flaming objects” attached to them, the military said.
Between 12,000 and 14,000 Palestinians participated in the protests, Mr. Conricus said.
Gazans are calling for the right to return to their ancestors’ villages and towns, a demand Israeli officials reject because they say it would risk the country’s Jewish majority.
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, told a crowd of protesters at the border, “We are committed to the right of return and we seek to realize this by any means, until the siege is broken.”
Israel and Egypt maintain an effective blockade of the strip to ensure Hamas can’t arm to attack Israelis.
The Israeli military said its fighter jets struck six military targets belonging to Hamas’s naval force.
“The strikes were carried out in response to the terror activity and mass attempt to infiltrate into Israeli territory earlier today,” the military said late Friday.
Hamas affiliate Al-Aqsa TV reported Israeli airstrikes hit sites belonging to the group in the central Gaza Strip.
Additionally, Gaza’s Interior Ministry said Israeli drones fired two missiles at two boats in the Gaza City seaport Friday night. No one was injured in the incident, the ministry said.
An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.
Friday’s protests followed the funeral a day earlier of Fadi al-Batsh, a 35-year-old Palestinian engineer killed Saturday in Malaysia.
Hamas has blamed Israel for the killing of Mr. Batsh, who the militant and political group claimed was a member. Israeli officials have said intra-Palestinian rivalry was behind the killing of the scientist. Mr. Batsh’s father has said his son wasn’t part of Hamas.
Mr. Batsh’s body arrived in Gaza from Malaysia on Thursday and he was buried the same day.
“The hand that assassinated the scientist will be severed,” Ismail Haniyeh, the overall head of Hamas, said during Mr. Batsh’s funeral.
Mr. Haniyeh has said that the protests would reach their peak on May 15, when organizers plan the biggest march for what Palestinians call “Nakba Day,” or “Day of the Catastrophe,” marking the day after Israel’s founding on May 14, 1948.
Mr. Haniyeh this week said he now plans for the protests to continue through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will start mid-May. Ramadan has historically been a time of increased conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel says Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, is using the demonstrations as a pretext to attack Israeli soldiers.
Since the protests began on March 30, some 42 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, mostly during protests, and more than 5,500 injured, including 1,739 injured by live fire, according to a United Nations agency. Those numbers don’t include those who were killed or injured Friday.
Israel hasn’t disputed the numbers. It says at least 11 of the dead belonged to terrorist organizations.
Israel’s military has responded to international criticism by saying it must use gunfire to prevent a breach of the border fence by angry protesters who could easily reach nearby Israeli towns. Though many protesters are non-violent, unverified videos have showed some Palestinians attempting to attack the fence.
This week organizers put an emphasis on the role of young people, thousands of whom have come out in support of the protests, dedicating Friday’s demonstration to “rebellious youth.”
Four children have been shot dead by Israeli forces since the protests began last month and 233 children have been injured by live ammunition, according to the U.N.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a statement on Friday, urged Israel to refrain from “excessive force” against Palestinian protesters, especially children.
Israel has accused Hamas of using child protesters as a diversion from militants trying to carry out attacks at the border.
“[Hamas] is trying to convince you [to protest] with illusions of manhood…Don’t let Hamas steal away your future,” Israeli army spokesperson Avichay Adraee tweeted in Arabic Friday afternoon.
Speaking at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday night, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Hamas of using “children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel.”