Death toll for Gaza protests rises; more demonstrations expected

A mother held her 8-months baby, Leila al-Ghandour, at the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza Cityon Tuesday.
A mother held her 8-months baby, Leila al-Ghandour, at the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza Cityon Tuesday.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Ahead of another day of protests, the death toll for those killed by Israeli forces at the Gaza boundary fence climbed to 61 on Tuesday after reports that an infant died overnight from tear gas inhalation along with two others, according to local health officials.

Monday’s protests saw a level of bloodshed not seen in Gaza since a 2014 war with Israel and more could be ahead as residents bury the dead and prepare 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.


Israeli officials, however, justified the military’s tactics as necessary to stop the Palestinians from breaking into Israel, which has blockaded Gaza for more than a decade after the militant group Hamas took control of the area.

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The death toll more than doubled the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza during six weeks of demonstrations, dubbed the ‘‘March of Return,’’ and came on the same day that a new U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.

The embassy move from Tel Aviv has been widely denounced as a blow to peace efforts in the region and a slap at Palestinians, who consider part of Jerusalem as the capital of a possible future state.

Tuesday’s protests to mark the Nakba, however, are expected to be significantly smaller, after the organizing committee called for a day of mourning after Monday’s bloodshed.

More than 2,700 people were injured, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, including 1,359 from live ammunition. The dead included at least seven children under the age of 18, among them a 15-year-old girl, the ministry said. The baby was eight months old and died after inhaling tear gas at the main protest area east of Gaza City, it added.


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.

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.’’

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,’’ wrote Netanyahu 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.’’

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.

Israel’s former national security adviser and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Yaakov Amidror, said that the people around the world condemning the violence need to understand this isn’t like a protest 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.

‘‘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.

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.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinians observed a strike Tuesday to mourn dozens killed by Israeli troops in a mass protest on the Gaza border — the single deadliest day there since a 2014 war and part of a high-stakes campaign by Gaza’s Hamas rulers to break a decade-long border blockade.

In Monday’s protest, Israeli forces killed 58 Palestinians, most by gunfire, and injured more than 2,700, Gaza health officials said. In jarring contrast, the US held a festive inauguration ceremony for a new US embassy in contested Jerusalem just a few miles away.

The juxtaposition of bloodshed on the Gaza border and festivities attended by a high-powered Trump administration delegation — captured on split screens in TV broadcasts around the world — briefly drew attention to the plight of Gaza and its 2 million people.

The high casualty toll also revived international criticism of Israel’s use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. At the same time, the opening of the embassy, condemned by Palestinians as blatantly pro-Israel, further dimmed prospects of what President Trump had once touted as plans to negotiate the Mideast ‘‘deal of the century.’’

The UN Security Council planned to meet Tuesday to discuss the violence, though it was not clear what might come out of the session.

Two UN diplomats said members couldn’t reach unanimous agreement on issuing a proposed statement, circulated by Kuwait, that would have expressed ‘‘outrage and sorrow’’ over the killings and sought an independent investigation. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were supposed to be private.

For Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized Gaza in 2007, Monday’s border protest was the culmination of a weeks-long campaign to try to break the blockade. The group led weekly protests near the border with Israel since late March as part of this push.

On Tuesday, there were no signs that Hamas had made a breakthrough in shaking off the blockade that was imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007. In a sign of an easing, Egypt extended the opening of its border crossing with Gaza, initially set to continue for four days, by two more days, until Thursday. Typically, the Rafah crossing is closed for most of the year.

In recent days, there had been negotiations between Egypt and Hamas, presumably on easing the blockade in exchange for ending the protests.

Hamas has said protests would continue in a weekly format, but it was not clear if it would be able to maintain momentum during the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week.

Protest organizers said Tuesday was set aside for funerals, in an apparent attempt to lower expectation of another mass protest later in the day.

Hamas had initially said mass border protests would continue Tuesday, which marks the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call their ‘‘nakba,’’ or catastrophe — the uprooting of hundreds of thousands in the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation.

The border marches are seen as Hamas’ last hope of ending the blockade that has made it increasingly difficult for the group to govern. Other tactics, including three cross-border wars with Israel in a decade and reconciliation with Hamas’ chief Palestinian rival, West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas, have failed.

Monday emerged as the deadliest single day in Gaza since the last Israel-Hamas war in 2014. The Gaza Health Ministry said 58 Palestinians were killed Monday, including 57 by Israeli fire and a baby who died from tear gas inhalation.

Six of those killed by gunfire were minors, the ministry said.

In addition, more than 2,700 people were hurt, among them 1,360 by gunshots. Of the wounded, 130 were in serious or critical condition, it said.

The new wave of injured placed a burden on Gaza’s already struggling hospitals where key medicines and surgical supplies were lacking even before the latest bloodshed, in part because of the border closures.

Hospitals and other key installations in Gaza, such as sewage treatment and water pumping stations, heavily rely on generators because of hours-long power cuts every day. Gaza’s power crisis was further aggravated last week when vandals destroyed the fuel terminal at Israel’s only cargo crossing into Gaza, halting the flow of fuel and gas.

Israel has defended its actions over the past few weeks, saying troops were defending its border. It also accused Hamas militants of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of the protests, including on Monday.

The Israeli military said its aircraft had struck 11 ‘‘terror targets’’ in a Hamas military compound Monday and that tanks targeted two Hamas posts. It said Gaza activists used 10 explosive devices and firebombs against troops and that shots were fired at soldiers positioned along the border.

Monday’s protest also targeted the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, viewed as a major provocation by the Palestinians and the Arab world.

The Palestinian political camp led by Abbas seeks Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, followed by Monday’s relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was seen by Abbas as a betrayal. He reiterated Monday that he considers the US unfit to continue as Mideast broker and that he would not accept any peace deal that might be presented by the Trump administration.

He also decided on a series of steps that are bound to anger the US and Israel.

His foreign minister, Riad Malki, said Tuesday that the Palestinians would send a war crimes complaint against Israel to the International Criminal Court, in connection with Israel’s ongoing settlement construction on war-won lands.

The Palestinians have had standing at the court since the UN General Assembly recognized a ‘‘state of Palestine’’ as a non-member observer in 2012.

Malki said ‘‘Palestine’’ would also join three international organizations, going against a long-standing US request to avoid this.