At least 15 people have been killed at the outset of a massive protest expected to last another month and a half.
If the demonstrations continue, and Israel responds the way it did today, there is a significant risk that the death count will rise, and an already complicated situation will get worse.
Israeli troops opened fire Friday at Palestinians near the Gaza Strip’s border with the Jewish state, killing at least 15 people and wounding many more. The numbers came from the Palestinian health ministry, which put the number of those injured at more than 1,000.
The Palestinian demonstration at the border, dubbed the Great March of Return, was billed as peaceful and nonviolent. Protesters pitched tents near the border with Israel and demanded that refugees be allowed to return to homes they left behind in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel. Israel, which estimates that 17,000 Palestinians have gathered near the border at six locations, said its troops were enforcing “a closed military zone.” The Israeli army also said it opened fire toward the “main instigators” of what it called rioters who were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones at the security fence and at” Israeli troops. Israel had warned Gaza residents against protesting, and said Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, was “cynically” sending women and children “to the security fence and endangering their lives.”
The date the protest began, March 30, is the anniversary of Land Day, a 1976 event in which Israelis killed six Palestinians who were protesting the confiscation of their lands. The protests are expected to last until May 15, the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, which the Palestinians view as a “naqba” or “catastrophe” for their people.
The size of the demonstrations Friday shows how attached Palestinians remain to the “right of return” — the notion that Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants should be allowed to return to the homes their families had in what is now Israel. Palestinians say this is a key condition in any negotiations with Israel over a future state. The Israelis view this as a nonstarter, saying it is unrealistic for Palestinians, many of whom have only lived in refugee camps in places like Lebanon, to come to a country their ancestors left — a return that could irreversibly alter the demographic makeup, and by extension the Jewish nature, of the state of Israel. Indeed, a massive Palestinian march along the border with Israel could arguably trigger Israeli fears about Palestinians marching on Israel and overwhelming it demographically.