Israeli forces have shot dead seven Palestinians and wounded more than 1,000 as tens of thousands participated in a mass demonstration demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health reported on Friday that 293 people were injured by live ammunition after Israeli forces fired on protesters who had gathered near the Israeli border in the besieged Gaza Strip.
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Hundreds of protesters suffered other injuries, including tear gas inhalation.
Palestinian officials identified those killed as Osama Qdeih, 38, Majdi Ramadan Shbat, Hussein Madi, 16, Ibrahim Al-Ourr, 20, Sidqi Abu Outewi, Mohammed Hajj Saleh, 33, and Alaa al-Zamali, 17.
Earlier on Friday, Thaer Rabaa succumbed to his wounds after being shot at last week’s March 30 protest.
Friday’s demonstration was the second in as many weeks of a planned, weeks-long sit-in dubbed the Great March of Return.
Its main message is to call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes in the territories taken over by Israel during the 1948 war, known to Arabs as the Nakba.
Around 70 percent of Gaza’s two million population were forced from their homes and now live in a territory the size of the US city of Detroit – about 360sq km – which has been described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”.
Israel has drawn sharp criticism for its open-fire orders along the border, including its warnings that those approaching or trying to damage the fence would be targeted.
At least 21 Palestinians were killed at last week’s March 30 protests, or succumbed to their wounds in the following days, after Israeli forces fired live ammunition, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets at protesting Palestinians. More than 1,600 others were wounded.
There were indications that Israel used “excessive force” against protesters last week.
“There are indications that individuals killed or wounded were unarmed or did not pose a serious threat, and in some cases were actually running away from the Green Line fence,” Elizabeth Throssell, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said of last week’s events.
“This indicates that security forces used excessive force.”
Yariv Oppenheimer, a member of Peace Now, a non-government organisation in Israel, lamented the deaths and urged the Israeli army to exercise restraint.
“The Israeli army cannot shoot live ammunition at civilians, especially when they are not armed.”
The Gaza Strip is but one of the focal points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although it is part of the Israeli-occupied territories, the Strip was severed from the West Bank and East Jerusalem when Israel was created. A range of Israeli restrictions has since been created that further compartmentalise the Palestinian territories.
Gaza’s economy has been devastated by years of Israeli military attacks and a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, as well as two of the three border crossing points; the third is controlled by Egypt.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from the protests, said anger was boiling at the protest over Israel’s debilitating blockade on the Gaza Strip and its deteriorating conditions.
“There is a deep frustration and anger directed towards Egypt and Israel, but also at the Palestinian political leadership – because nothing seems to get better.
“One young boy told me he was 16 and dropped out of school because he saw no prospects after he would finish his studies,” she said.
“Many of these youth at the protest have only known war; all they have seen is pain and hardship, and they see no end in sight.”
‘Gaza will stand tall’
In a visit to Khuzaa camp on Friday, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ Gaza chief, told the gathered crowd that the “Israeli plan of starvation and siege” had “failed to incite the Palestinian people against the resistance”.
“Gaza will not starve and will not abandon its original national objective,” he said, surrounded by hundreds of supporters.
“Our people have told the world that Gaza is free and will stand tall and resist the Israeli occupation.”
The Great March of Return is due to continue until May 15, the day Palestinians call the Nakba or Catastrophe, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.
Palestinians have long demanded that as many as five million direct descendants of the original Palestinian refugees be given the right to return to their ancestral homes.
Israel has ruled out the demand, arguing that the return of Palestinians to what is now Israel would outnumber its Jewish majority.