–some 40,000 people gathered for mass rally
–Israeli military uses live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters
GAZA: Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in heavy rain at the Israel-Gaza border on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of a new wave of protests, facing off against Israeli tanks and troops massed on the fortified frontier.
The ‘Great March of Return’ protests have been marked by deadly violence and Gaza two Palestinians had been killed on Saturday, reported Gaza medical officials. One man died near the border before dawn, hours before the main afternoon rally, they said, while a 17-year-old boy was killed by Israeli fire at a protest site east of Gaza City.
Palestinian protesters threw rocks, grenades and burning tires towards the Israeli soldiers across the border fence, said the Israeli military.
Eager to get a big turnout on the anniversary, organizers set up loudspeakers at protest camps along the border, blaring out Palestinian nationalist songs at full volume. Hamas, which has been the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip since its takeover of that area in 2007, turned up at the rallies and ordered schools to shut for the day to encourage participation.
The protesters are calling for the lifting of a security blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, and for Palestinians to have the right to return to land from which their families fled or were forced to flee during Israel’s founding in 1948.
“We will move towards the borders even if we die,” said Yusef Ziyada, 21, his face painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag. “We are not leaving. We are returning to our land.”
Israel rejects any such return, saying that would eliminate its Jewish majority.
The Israeli military said 40,000 people had gathered in the frontier area but that most of them were keeping away from the border.
Despite the bad weather, an Israeli security official said the turnout was larger than for the usual weekly protests and that it also appeared organizers were trying to keep violence from erupting.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 17 people had been wounded by Israeli gunfire and scores more by tear gas and shrapnel.
Around 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the protests started on March 30 last year, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures, and an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
Confrontations have mounted ahead of the anniversary.
A Gaza rocket attack wounded seven Israelis north of Tel Aviv on Monday and, in response, Israel launched a wave of air strikes and ramped up its forces at the border.
The blockade is cited by humanitarian agencies as a key reason for impoverishment in the narrow coastal enclave into which 2 million Palestinians are packed.
Leaders of the armed Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad said that progress has been made in the truce talks, but they had a list of demands from Israel that they wanted to see fulfilled.
“In the coming days we hope to conclude the negotiations and achieve a real breaking of the blockade,” Hamas Chief in Gaza Yehya Sinwar told the local media as he arrived at the protest.
Security has been a prominent issue in the build-up to Israeli elections due on April 9. Facing a serious challenge from a centrist party led by a former general, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza will also be under scrutiny from hawkish allies in his right-wing coalition.
The border protests have turned into a standoff between Gazans hurling rocks and explosives and Israeli troops across the border. Palestinians have also launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and breached the Israeli frontier fence.
March 30 also marks “Land Day”, an annual commemoration of six Arab citizens of Israel who were killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over land confiscations in 1976.