GAZA CITY — Urged on by a Hamas leader who told them not to fear death but to welcome martyrdom, hundreds of Palestinian protesters tried to cross the security barrier from Gaza into Israel on Friday, and Gaza officials said at least three people were killed.
Israeli troops defended the fence with lethal force. The military said it responded after some protesters threw explosives, firebombs, and rocks, while others rolled burning tires toward the fence.
Witnesses said that at one point two Palestinians approached the fence with handguns, and one fired at least seven rounds at Israeli soldiers before the two fled. The soldiers threw a hand grenade in response, the witnesses said, but the armed men were long gone.
As of Friday evening, the Gaza Health Ministry said three protesters had been killed, all of them shot in the head. About 600 others had been wounded, about 200 of them by live ammunition, it said.
Using wire cutters, hooks, and winches, the demonstrators tried to pull down the barriers that Israeli forces have relied upon to hold back the protesters. The demonstrators have increasingly vowed to rush into Israel and reclaim the lands their forefathers left behind.
This was the fifth straight week of demonstrations in a series billed as the Great Return March, meant to highlight the decade-old Israeli blockade of the impoverished coastal enclave as well as to rekindle international sympathy for Palestinian refugees’ claim of a right to return to what is now Israel.
At least 40 demonstrators were killed and 1,600 wounded in the first four weekly protests.
A 21-year-old man who gave his name only as Ahmed said he had seen five men shot as they pulled away a barbed-wire barrier which demarcates a buffer zone just inside Gaza territory and amounts to the Israelis’ first line of defense.
But for the first time since these protests began on March 30, witnesses and Israeli officials confirmed, at least some of the Palestinians trying to cross into Israel made it as far as the second barrier about 30 yards away — an electrified, sensor-laden fence that runs along the 1949 armistice line separating Gaza from Israel.
Ibrahim Shahid, 26, said he was among a group of about 12 men who cut through the barbed wire and then began climbing the electrified fence. He said he saw an Israeli soldier firing “randomly” at the group and added that three men were shot in the head. Another, he said, was shot in the abdomen and wounded.
“One of them — his last breath was on my shoulder,” Shahid said, his T-shirt soaked with blood.
One Israeli soldier threw a grenade at the group, he said. Asked how he had avoided injury, he added, “I was lucky.”
Hamas militant group has called the protests peaceful, though participants have thrown firebombs at Israeli soldiers and are routinely attaching them to kites that sail over the fence, setting fires to Israeli farmland.
Israel, defending its use of deadly force, has described the protests as riots that could turn into an invasion at any time.
An Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said soldiers used live fire in Friday in response to what he called “a serious attempt to tear down the fence” involving at least 20 or 30 Palestinians who tried to attach a hook to it to pull it down with a winch.
“It again shows exactly what we are talking about,” he said. “This is not a peaceful demonstration. There’s nothing serene about this. They’re trying to infiltrate into Israel, damage our infrastructure, and kill Israelis.”
Reminded that Israel’s critics have denounced the country for attacking unarmed demonstrators with deadly force, Conricus said: “They aren’t the ones defending Israeli citizens from a hateful mob of thousands of Palestinians. It doesn’t matter if someone is carrying flowers if he’s tearing down the fence. That’s a violent threat.”
Israeli officials some some of the protesters at Friday’s rally threw explosives, firebombs, and rocks, while others rolled burning tires toward the fence.
The protests are building toward what is meant to be a climax on May 15, when Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe — the establishment of Israel and the war surrounding its creation. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their villages.
Friday’s demonstration at the eastern edge of Gaza City — adjacent to the old Karni Crossing, a cargo terminal that allowed goods to cross between Israel and Gaza until it was shut down in 2011 — started relatively late in the day.
But thousands began rushing toward the barrier fence after a rousing speech by the senior Hamas leader Ismail Radwan, setting off a tremendous barrage of tear gas from the Israeli side that did not deter many.
“When we are brave, we are getting closer toward martyrdom, martyrdom, martyrdom,” he said.