GAZA CITY — 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 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.
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.
Israeli 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,” Netanyahu wrote 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 advisor 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.