GAZA BORDER (Reuters) - Israeli troops fired live rounds and tear gas at Palestinians who thronged the Gaza-Israel frontier and rampaged at a border terminal on Friday as part of a long-running protest, injuring about 1,100 people.
Medics said around 82 people were shot and wounded with live fire, another 800 treated for gas inhalation and the rest for other injuries along the Gaza side of the 25-mile (40-km) border fence, where Palestinians set up tent encampments on March 30 for what they call “The Great March of Return”.
Youths rolled burning tyres to within 300 metres (yards) of the fence, trying to use the smoke as cover for throwing stones across it while eluding Israeli snipers. Army gunfire has killed at least 43 Palestinians on the frontier over the last month.
Protesters said they used slingshots to down two small Israeli observation drones. The army confirmed the drone losses.
Hundreds of Palestinians entered Kerem Shalom, an industrial crossing point on the border. One of them said over social media that they had “torched rooms used by the Occupation (Israel).”
The Israeli army issued footage showing fires at Kerem Shalom, but said the damage was limited to the Palestinian side.
“The rioters are damaging the pipes that carry fuel and gas from Israel into the Gaza Strip,” the army said in a statement.
Facing international censure over its use of live fire in the protests, the Israeli army says it is protecting its border and takes such action only when protesters, some hurling firebombs and trying to plant explosives, approach too closely.
On Friday, troops faced “10,000 Palestinians participating in riots in six locations along the Gaza Strip border,” it said.
As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Palestinians mourn what they call the “Nakba” (Catastrophe) of their people’s mass dispossession during the conflict that broke out in 1948.
Two-thirds of the two million Palestinians in Gaza are war refugees or their descendants. The protests have seen thousands gather - in greater numbers on Fridays - to demand access to their families’ lost homes or lands, now in Israel.
Israel rules that out, concerned it would lose its Jewish majority. Alternatives, such as accommodating refugees and their descendants in a future Palestinian state, have been discussed in peace talks that date back to 1993 but which are now stalled.
“If it wasn’t for the occupation we would have lived as free as people like in other countries,” Ahmed, 24, said at a protest site east of Gaza City. “If they don’t allow us back, at least they should give us a state.”
Israel says the protests have been organised by Hamas - an Islamist group that controls Gaza and is sworn to Israel’s destruction - to provide cover for attacks, and that most of the dead were militants. Palestinians deny those allegations.
Israel, which withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, has expanded its settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
An added focus this year is President Donald Trump’s decision to begin moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Trump’s moves angered Palestinian leaders, who have refused to talk to his administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Israel’s government celebrated the U.S. decision, saying it recognised the “reality” that Jerusalem was the historic capital of the Jewish people.
Visiting the Middle East earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lent his support to Israel’s handling of the border protests. “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves,” he said.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Farrell, Mark Heinrich, William Maclean