By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers fired bullets and tear gas at thousands of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, wounding nearly 200 people, hours after the United Nations human rights chief criticized Israel for using “excessive force”.
Israeli troops have killed 38 Palestinians and wounded more than 5,000 others since Gaza residents began staging protests along the border fence on March 30 to demand the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
On Friday, Israeli ground troops, holed up behind fortifications on their side of the 40km (25-mile) border fence, fired live ammunition and tear gas at protesters at five locations on the Gazan side.
The Gaza health ministry said 60 were wounded by gun fire, including a Palestinian journalist who was hit with a bullet in his foot.
Dozens more, including four medics, were treated for gas inhalation, as Israeli forces showered the area with tear gas canisters from behind their fortifications.
Protesters hurled stones and rolled burning tyres towards the fence, and some attached cans of burning petrol to kites and flew them into Israeli territory.
Others cleared away barbed wire coils which Israeli troops had placed in Gazan territory overnight in a bid to create a buffer zone between protesters and the fence.
The protests come at a time of growing frustration for Palestinians as prospects for an independent Palestinian state look poor. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.
In a statement released earlier on Friday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the loss of life was “deplorable” and that a “staggering number of injuries” had been caused by live ammunition.
Israel’s foreign ministry had no immediate comment but the government has consistently said that it is protecting its borders and that its troops are following rules of engagement.
Named the ‘Great March of Return’, the protest action revives a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.
(Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by Stephen Farrell and Raissa Kasolowsky)