At least two Palestinians were killed and more than 50 wounded by Israeli gunfire in Gaza, Palestinian medical officials said on Friday, as Gazans began a planned six-week protest along the border with Israel.
One of the dead, a Gaza farmer, was killed by an Israeli tank shell in the southern Gaza Strip, the health ministry said. A second man died in stone-throwing clashes with troops along the fenced frontier, hospital officials said.
An Israeli military spokesman said in southern Gaza “two suspects approached the security fence and began operating suspiciously and the tank fired towards them.”
A subsequent statement said troops had used dispersal means against protesters who were rolling burning tires and hurling stones at the security fence and at troops, and that soldiers had fired towards the main instigators.
Tension was high along the frontier because the protest coincided with the start of the Jewish Passover and the Christian celebrations of Good Friday, when Israel security forces are customarily on a state of high alert.
The focal point of concern was a tent protest attended by tens of thousands of Gazans, including families with children, who gathered at several locations a few hundred meters (yards) from the border fence east of Gaza City.
Hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from organizers to keep away, increasing the risk of confrontation with Israeli troops. Palestinian medical officials said that by early afternoon at least 45 people had been injured by Israel army gunfire, including a nine-year-old boy.
Israel’s military chief said that more than 100 army sharpshooters had been deployed along the Gaza border in anticipation of trouble.
Heavy Israeli earth-moving vehicles added to a series of dirt mounds on the Israeli side of the fence and extra barbed wire was laid against any mass attempt to breach the barrier.
The protest marks “Land Day,” an annual Palestinian commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.
The demonstrators are demanding that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Israeli police announced heightened security measures nationwide from before the start of Passover on Friday at sundown and through the Jewish and Christian holidays including the eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter next weekend.
An Israeli police spokesman said thousands of officers would be deployed, including “special patrol units” in all cities.
West Bank crossing points leading to Israel were unusually quiet on Friday morning, with a ban on many West Bank Palestinians entering through checkpoints.
In Gaza, the tent protest was dubbed “The March of Return.” Some of the tents bore the names of the refugees’ original villages.
Eighty-year-old Mansi Nassar walked towards the border with the aid of his cane ignoring calls to remain 700 meters (2,300 feet) from the barrier.
“I was born in Beit Darras inside Palestine and I will accept no less than returning to it,” he said, referring to his former home village just south of the modern Israeli city of Ashdod. The village no longer exists.
Israel rules out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. Israel argues that refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The protest is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians mark what they call the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe” when the Israeli state was created.
The protest organizers include Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that dominates Gaza and representatives of other Palestinian factions.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke at one tent encampment on Friday, saying that Gazans were demanding a “return to Palestine, all of Palestine. No concessions and no recognition of the Zionist entity (Israel) in any inch of the land”.
With feelings raw on both sides, however, Hamas urged protesters to adhere to the “peaceful nature” of the march.
An Israeli foreign ministry statement said the protest was “being orchestrated in Gaza by Hamas in a deliberate attempt to provoke a violent confrontation”.