The Palestinian Authority has declared Saturday a day of national mourning after 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces as thousands marched near Gaza’s border with Israel in a major demonstration marking the 42nd anniversary of Land Day.
“Schools, universities, as well as all government institutions, across the country will be off on Saturday, as per President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to declare a day of national mourning for the souls of the martyrs,” a statement issued on Friday said.
More than 1,400 others were wounded after Israeli forces fired live ammunition at protesters and used tear gas to push them back from a heavily fortified fence, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Friday’s demonstration commemorated Land Day, which took place on March 30, 1976, when six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli forces during protests against the Israeli government’s decision to expropriate massive tracts of Palestinian-owned land.
Organisers of Friday’s march, dubbed “the Great Return March”, said the main message of the demonstration was to call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Some 70 percent of Gaza’s two million population are descendants of Palestinians who were driven from their homes in the territories taken over by Israel during the 1948 war, known to Arabs as the Nakba.
Protesters in Gaza gathered in five different spots along the border, originally positioned about 700 metres away from the fence.
According to the ministry, the majority were injured by live fire, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas inhalation.
Mohammed Najjar, 25, was shot in the stomach in a clash east of Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, while Mahmoud Muammar, 38, and Mohammed Abu Omar, 22, were both shot dead in Rafah, the Palestinian health ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Among the other victims were Ahmed Odeh, 19, Jihad Freneh, 33, Mahmoud Saadi Rahmi, 33, Abdelfattah Abdelnabi, 19, Ibrahim Abu Shaar, 20, Abdelqader al-Hawajiri, Sari Abu Odeh, Hamdan Abu Amsheh, Jihad Abu Jamous, Bader al-Sabbagh and Naji Abu Hjair, whose ages remain unknown.
Earlier on Friday, Omar Waheed Abu Samour, a farmer from Gaza, was also killed by Israeli artillery fire while standing in his land near Khan Younis, just hours before the demonstrations.
There has been no confirmation from the Israeli army of the attack that killed Samour.
Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinian rights in Israel, condemned the Israeli army’s use of force, calling it a violation of international law.
“Live gunfire on unarmed civilians constitutes a brutal violation of the international legal obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants,” the group said in a statement.
It also said that it would launch an investigation to “demand that those found responsible for the killings be brought to justice”.
According to Israeli media, Israel’s army deployed more than 100 snipers on the other side of the border with permission to fire.
The march was called for by all political factions and several Palestinian civil society organisations in the besieged enclave.
Speaking to the protesters, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said: “The Palestinian people have proved time after time that they can take the initiative and do great things. This march is the beginning of the return to all of Palestine.”
Friday’s protest also kicked off a six-week sit-in demonstration along the border leading up to the commemoration of the Nakba on May 15.
It is expected that the United States will be transferring its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem around the same time, following President Donald Trump‘s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.
At Kuwait’s request, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Friday, but failed to agree on a joint statement.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “independent and transparent investigation” and reaffirmed “the readiness” of the world body to revitalise peace efforts.
However, Mansour al-Otaibi, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the UN, issued a statement criticising the Security Council’s for failing to take action against Israel.
“People in occupied Palestine are disappointed that the Security Council met, but did not take action yet to stop this massacre and to hold those responsible to account.”
The Jordanian government also issued a statement laying responsibility on Israel for the deaths of the Palestinian protesters.
Mohammad al-Momani, spokesperson for the Jordanian government, said: “As an occupying power, Israel bears responsibility for what happened in Gaza today, as a result of the Israeli violation of the Palestinian right to protest peacefully and the use of excessive force against them”.
The Turkish and Qatari governments released similar statements, condemning Israel’s use of force.