(AFP) – Clashes erupted as tens of thousands of Gazans marched near the Israeli border in a major protest, with 16 Palestinians killed and hundreds more wounded in the conflict’s worst single day of violence since the 2014 Gaza war.
Israel’s military targeted three Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip with tank fire and an air strike after what it said was an attempted shooting attack against soldiers along the border that caused no injuries.
Protesters, including women and children, gathered at multiple sites throughout the blockaded territory, which is flanked by Israel along its eastern and northern borders.
Smaller numbers approached within a few hundred metres (yards) of the heavily fortified border fence, with Israeli troops using tear gas and live fire to force them back.
Israeli security forces used a drone to fire tear gas toward those along the border, in one of the first uses of the device, a police spokesman said.
The health ministry in Gaza said 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.
More than 1,400 were injured, including 758 by live fire, with the remainder hurt by rubber bullets and tear gas inhalation, it said. Palestinians accused Israel of using disproportionate force, as did Turkey.
The UN Security Council held emergency talks Friday to discuss the risks of further escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip, but failed to agree a joint statement on the deadly clashes.
“There is fear that the situation might deteriorate in the coming days,” said assistant UN secretary general for political affairs, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, urging maximum restraint.
Israel’s military alleged that the main protests were being used as cover by militants to either break through the border or carry out attacks.
“It is not a peaceful demonstration,” an Israeli military official told journalists. The army said it estimated some 30,000 demonstrators were taking part in the protests.
“Rioters are rolling burning tyres and hurling firebombs and rocks at the security fence and at (Israeli) troops, who are responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators,” it said.
Protesters were demanding hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 be allowed to return.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya attended the protest, believed to be the first time he has gone so close to the border in years. Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008, the most recent of which in 2014 ended with a fragile truce.
The demonstration is planned to last six weeks, until the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem around May 14.
The upcoming embassy move has added to tensions surrounding the march.
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December has infuriated Palestinians, who claim its annexed eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The protest also began as Jewish Israelis were to mark the Passover holiday.
Israel announced a “closed military zone in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip,” accusing its Islamist rulers Hamas of using the lives of civilians “for the purpose of terror”.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a tweet directed to Gazans in both Hebrew and Arabic that “Hamas’s leadership is playing with your life”.
Protests along the border are common but the “March of Return” protest is different because it is intended to include families with women and children camping near the border for weeks.
Protester Saeed Juniya erected a small tent a few hundred metres from the border fence east of Gaza City, where he was accompanied by his wife and children.
“We are determined and not scared as we are not doing something wrong. The people are demanding their land and to return to their country,” he said.
Organisers say the camps will remain in place until May 15 when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, of the 1948 creation of Israel with the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees and the protest is calling for them to be allowed to return to land that is now Israel.
Washington’s plans to launch its new embassy to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Israeli state, further stoking Palestinian anger.
“We are deeply saddened by loss of life in #Gaza today,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert wrote on Twitter.
“Int’l community is focused on taking steps that will improve the lives of the Palestinians and is working on a plan for peace. Violence furthers neither of those goals.”
The launch of the protests comes as Palestinians mark Land Day, commemorating the killing of six unarmed Arab protesters in Israel in 1976.