The protest, which saw tens of thousands of protesters calling for the right of return for refugees into Israeli territory, was one of the biggest gatherings in the country in the past few years. An estimate from Israel’s military forces was that the crowd numbered 30,000 people.
The clash took place amidst a planned protest along the 40 mile strip that was scheduled for six weeks long.
Riyad Mansour, Palestinian U.N. envoy, has told the Security Council that seventeen Palestinians had been killed, and 1400 injured, including children. At the request of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council received a briefing on the clash in Gaza.
During the protest, where whole families brought children and played music and football near the Israeli security barrier, scores of Palestinian young people came closer and closer to the border. Israeli soldiers kept guard on the other side. The youth had been repeatedly appealed to to stay back.
According to the Israeli military, it was only when the youths attempted to destroy the border security fence that they started using live fire. The young people threw rocks and rolled burning tires at the fence. The military further identified two of those killed in the clash were operatives of Hamas.
However, health officers from Palestine claimed that gunfire had been used against the protesters, along with rubber bullets and tear gas. Witnesses recounted seeing a drone used to drop tear gas on the demonstrators.
One of the fatalities was a 16 year old male, while two others, claimed to be Palestinian militants by Israel, were killed by tank fire. 400 people were injured by live bullets, and others had been affected by the tear gas and rubber bullets.
Saturday, March 31, was declared to be a national day of mourning for Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas held Israel responsible for the clash that resulted in the deaths and injuries.
The UN has called for an independent investigation of the matter. The UN Security Council is concerned that the situation in Gaza may escalate due to the recent violence.
The protest was held on “Land Day” a celebration held every year to honor the six Arab citizens who died at the hands of Israeli forces during land confiscation protests in 1976. The people who had gathered during “Land Day” called in unity to demand that refugees from Palestine be allowed to return to the home towns and villages that they had been forced to leave in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.
Israeli’s military has condemned Hamas for “cynically exploiting women and children, sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives”. Hamas had earlier enjoined protesters to remain peaceful.
The Israeli government has long refused right of return, out of concern that returning Arabs would overpower the Jewish majority. Instead, it has said former residents need to live in West Bank and Gaza.
Despite renewed calls for peace talks between Israel and Palestine, efforts toward reconciliation seem to have come to a halt.
The “Land Day” protest has been an opportunity for rival Palestinian groups to unite, especially for Fatah and Hamas to come together. The six-week long demonstration was referred to as “The March of Return” in Gaza, and at the encampment, the names of the inhabitants’ original villages were written in Hebrew and Arabic.