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Gaza buries its dead as death toll from protests at fence with Israel rises to at least 60

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/15/2018 Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash

GAZA CITY — Gaza residents buried their dead Tuesday as the death toll for Palestinians killed by Israeli forces at the Gaza boundary fence climbed to at least 60 after several succumbed to injuries overnight, according to local health officials. 

Monday’s demonstrations, which coincided with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, drew a level of bloodshed not seen in Gaza since a 2014 war with Israel. Israel’s use of live ammunition has drawn widespread condemnation, notably from Turkey, which expelled the Israeli ambassador on Tuesday after recalling its envoys to Israel and the United States. 

On Tuesday, gunfire rang out over Gaza City as rounds were fired during funeral processions.

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Further protests were planned as residents buried their dead and prepared to mark the anniversary of Israel’s founding, known to Palestinians as the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe.” More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population is descended from refugees who were displaced at the time of Israel’s creation 70 years ago.

However, crowds at the border were thin after the organizing committee for the demonstrations called for a day of mourning to bury the dead. Demonstrators were asked to go home early as the death toll climbed.

The death toll on Monday more than doubled the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza during six weeks of demonstrations, dubbed the “March of Return.”

More than 2,700 people were injured Monday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, including 1,359 from live ammunition. The dead included at least six children under the age of 18, among them a 15-year-old girl, the ministry said. Her family said she was 14.

The Health Ministry also reported that a baby died after inhaling tear gas at the main protest area in Gaza. An unidentified medical doctor told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the baby, Layla Ghaben, had a preexisting medical condition and that he did not believe her death was caused by tear gas. 

One more person was killed in demonstrations on Tuesday, the Health Ministry said.

Speculation was rife that crowds were thinner because Egypt had pressured Hamas to order people home. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was summoned to Cairo on a last-minute trip Sunday night, and senior leaders were noticeably absent from Monday’s demonstrations. 

Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border, which opens only sporadically, while Israel has blockaded its boundary with the territory for the past 10 years. Ahmed Yousef, a former senior adviser to Haniyeh, said it was likely that Egypt warned Hamas to prevent an escalation. 

He said Hamas may have secured some short-term concessions from Egypt in return, such as a sustained opening of the Rafah crossing point with Egypt, which has been open in recent days. 

“This is the minimum they can ask,” Yousef said of Hamas.

Israeli officials, however, justified the military’s tactics as necessary to stop the Palestinians from breaking into Israel, which blockaded Gaza after Hamas took control of the area in 2007.

The U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that while Israel had a right to defend itself, lethal force should be a last resort and was not justified on people just approaching the fence. He condemned Monday’s “appalling deadly violence.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also condemned the continuing “massacre” of the Palestinian people. Turkey and South Africa announced they were recalling their ambassadors from Israel.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called on Muslim countries to review their ties with Israel in the wake of the violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later attacked Turkish President Recep Erdogan on Twitter, saying that he “is one of the great supporters of Hamas, and there is no doubt that he understands terror and the massacres well, and I suggest that he not preach morality to us.”

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Israeli newspapers on Tuesday, contrasted the upbeat inauguration ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem with pictures of the violence on the border but couched it in terms of the country protecting itself.

“Every country must protect its borders,” Netanyahu wrote in a tweet. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that states its intention to destroy Israel and it sends thousands of people to breach the border fence to realize this goal. We will continue to act firmly to protect our sovereignty and our citizens.”

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He was backed by the Trump administration, which blamed Hamas for the loss of life. “The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah told reporters at a briefing.

Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the people around the world condemning the violence need to understand that the Gaza demonstrations are not like protests in Europe.

“They do not take into consideration that this is a cover for a terrorist organization that is attempting to stop Israel from building a system that would stop their underground terror tunnels,” he said.

Asked if Israel could use less lethal methods to contain the protesters, most of whom were unarmed, Amidror said that such a question was a good example of those who “can sit in an air-conditioned office, drinking coffee and give advice to the Israeli army that is facing off against many thousands of Palestinians.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on the edges of the fenced-off and blockaded territory from midmorning Monday. Many came to peacefully demonstrate, bringing their children and carrying flags. Food stalls sold snacks and music blared.

But the protests appeared to have a more violent edge than in previous weeks. Some young men brought knives and fence cutters. At a gathering point east of Gaza City, organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.

Israeli snipers were determined not to allow a breach, and Palestinian ambulances soon began screaming back and forth from the fence as gunshots rang out. No Israeli soldiers were injured.

In Gaza, Hamas has given its backing to the demonstrations, which have galvanized people around a call to protest the loss of Palestinian homes and villages when Israel was formed in 1948.

Commenting in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharaonot, however, journalist Ben-Dror Temini said that the situation was “self-inflicted” and the Palestinians need to get over the events of 1948.

The mother of an 8-month-old Palestinian infant who died after inhaling tear gas during protests at the Israel-Gaza border mourns at her funeral in Gaza City on Tuesday. © Mohammed Salem The mother of an 8-month-old Palestinian infant who died after inhaling tear gas during protests at the Israel-Gaza border mourns at her funeral in Gaza City on Tuesday. “There was a Nakba. The Arabs of Palestine underwent expulsion. Tens of millions of people throughout the entire world, including Jews, underwent similar expulsion. But only the Palestinians adopted an ethos of rejectionism, victimhood, suffering and death,” he wrote. “They aren’t looking to improve things for themselves.”

At Gaza City’s main al-Shifaa hospital, medics said on Monday night they were overwhelmed.

“I don't know how we will manage,” Ayman al-Sahbani, the head of the emergency department, said as families jostled to get in to see injured relatives. “How long can this go on? How long?”

“We’ve reached the critical point now,” he said. “A lot of people need operations soon, but the operation room is full.”

Increasing economic hardship has fueled frustrations in Gaza, along with wider despair across Palestinian territories amid moves by a U.S. administration seen as wholeheartedly on Israel’s side in the decades-old conflict.

At least 110 Gazans have been killed over the past six weeks, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures.

At the demonstrations east of Gaza City, some said the force used by Israel would only bring further unrest.

Standing a few hundred meters from the fence, Nirma Attalah, 29, said her 22-year-old brother had been killed two weeks ago. “My brother was shot in the head in this place,” she said. She had come on Monday with her whole extended family. “We are here for Jerusalem, for Palestinian land,” she said.

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While some said they would abide by official calls to keep the demonstrations peaceful, others talked about their enthusiasm to break into Israel and wreak havoc.

The Israeli military brought two extra brigades to the Gaza border in preparation for the demonstrations and added additional “defense lines” in an effort to prevent any mass invasion into Israeli communities near the border. 

The military said at least 40,000 people protested in 13 places along the fence — more than twice as many locations as in past weeks of protest. 

The vast majority of demonstrators were unarmed, but near a parking area, a man pulled out an AK-47 and took aim at an Israeli drone dropping leaflets. He let off a stream of bullets into the air and brought it down. Later, more gunfire was heard as Palestinian factions argued over who would keep the downed drone, onlookers said. 

The demonstrations have proved to be a welcome distraction for Hamas, refocusing anger against Israel as frustration built against the group in Gaza. 

At a news conference as evening fell, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haya said the protests would continue. 

“This blood will keep boiling until the occupation leaves forever,” he said.

Eglash reported from Jerusalem.


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