By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed a Palestinian and hundreds of others were hurt on Friday, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.
The protests are building to a climax on 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.
Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return”, said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.
The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. Seven people were critically hurt, including a 16-year-old who was shot in the face, Gaza medics said.
Of total number 971 needing treatment, 176 were hit by live bullets, they said. Others suffered the effects of teargas or were hit by rubber bullets or shrapnel.
Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests.
A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that during the protests, at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.
An Israeli army spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the report.
The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.
The military said protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks” and that it “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary”.
Before the protests ended for the day, dozens of demonstrators broke into the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom goods crossing where humanitarian supplies are delivered to Gaza and ignited a pipeline that delivers gas from Israel and torched a goods conveyor belt, causing damage estimated at more than $9 million, Israeli officials said.
Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.
The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”
Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.
“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.
“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”
(Additional reporting by Mustafa abu-Ghaneyeh, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff and Alison Williams)