Updated at 4:05 p.m. ET
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.
The protests also coincide with a significant religious period for both Jews and many Christians: Passover, when Jews celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, begins Friday. It is also Good Friday, which falls in the middle of the Christian holy week that culminates in Easter. Palestinian protests during this period add to the tensions in a region that isn’t a stranger to them.
Relations between Israel and the Palestinians have been fraught for decades. The optimism of the 1990s that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords between the two sides have given way to mutual mistrust and violence. Waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and rocket attacks frayed Israeli nerves; Israeli military retaliation was often swift. Israel’s construction of a barrier along its border with the West Bank saw a marked reduction in the number of Palestinians who crossed into Israel to carry out attacks. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, but kept control over its airspace and territorial waters. Blockaded by Israel, Gaza became virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Hamas won elections there in 2006. Israel, as well as the United States, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization—and refuses to deal with it directly.
Western attempts at mediation are moribund, much like the peace process between the two sides. Last year, Fatah, the Palestinian faction that governs the West Bank, signed an agreement on a unity government with Hamas, its rival. Past attempts at such a government have been unsuccessful. Israel says it will not deal with any unity government that includes Hamas. Still, the Trump administration is said to be on the verge of releasing its peace plan, formulated by Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law, and some advisers. But the fact that Trump broke with decades of U.S. precedent and international diplomacy by announcing his intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv means that any Palestinian buy-in for such a plan is dead on arrival.
Since the announcement last December that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem, Palestinians have been notably absent from U.S.-organized plans for the Palestinian territories. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, went as far as to call David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a “son of a dog,” a particularly incendiary insult in the Arab world. Friedman reportedly said he was working to have Abbas replaced as Palestinian leader, but denied this week he said any such thing. The embassy move is expected to be completed on May 14—one day before the current Palestinian protests are expected to end, and one day before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These factors add to the volatility of the situation.
Already, at least 15 Palestinians have died—and this is only the first day of the march. 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.