Thousands of Palestinians began to converge on the Gaza Strip-Israel buffer zone on Saturday to take part in mass rallies marking the first anniversary of the Great March of Return anti-occupation protests.
The protests also commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the Land Day when six people were killed in 1976 during demonstrations against seizure of Arab land in Galilee.
Waving Palestinian flags, demonstrators chanted slogans for an end to the 12-year-long Israeli blockade on Gaza, according to an Anadolu Agency reporter in the area. Tens of thousands are expected to join the demonstrations over the course of the day.
Dozens of volunteers in fluorescent vests prepared to restrain demonstrators from getting too close to the border fence. Ambulances lined up in front of clinics and police supervised encampments erected far from the fence.
Some protesters started approaching the barrier, prompting Israeli forces to respond with tear gas.
Medical sources in Gaza said that one Palestinian demonstrator was injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers in eastern Gaza City on Saturday morning.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry also said a 21-year-old, Mohammad Shaath, died on Saturday morning after he was hit in the head by shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell fired at eastern Gaza the night before.
Nine other Gazans were injured in clashes with the Israeli army Friday evening, the ministry said.
The Israeli army said that explosive devices had been thrown from the Gaza Strip towards the border fence and that in response, a tank struck a Hamas military post.
On Friday, Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad warned Israel against attacking protesters during the planned demonstrations.
“Any Israeli assault on the marches will be met with an equal response,” the Islamic Jihad said following a meeting between group chief Jihad al-Nakhla and Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aarouri in Lebanese capital Beirut.
In the run-up to Saturday’s rallies, the Israeli army has deployed numerous tanks and armored vehicles along the buffer zone with the Gaza Strip.
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly instructed the army to prepare for the possibility of a “broad” campaign in Gaza.
Nearly 270 Palestinian demonstrators have been killed by Israeli army gunfire since Palestinians began holding regular demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel buffer zone in March of last year.
Figures from UNICEF show some 40 children have been killed and 3,000 others have been hospitalized with injuries, many leading to life-long disabilities.
“All necessary measures need to be taken to ensure children are not targeted,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director in the Middle East and North Africa, said on Thursday.
“Furthermore, any attempt to use children in protests and demonstrations that could turn violent is unacceptable,” he added.
Demonstrators demand the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in historical Palestine from which they were driven in 1948 to make way for the new state of Israel.
They also demand an end to Israel’s 12-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has gutted the coastal enclave’s economy and deprived its roughly two million inhabitants of many basic commodities.
They are expected to reach their peak on Saturday, with calls for a “million-man march” not only in the Palestinian Territories and Israel but in Arab and European countries too.
A general strike was held in the Gaza Strip and the Health Ministry and Interior Ministry declared a state of emergency.
Fouad Aishan, 40, came with his five children to the frontier. He said he plans to show his children the Israeli soldiers and return to safety before the march started.
“I come here driven by personal national motivation,” he said. “It has nothing to do with what the politicians do.”
The Israeli army said Friday that Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi had approved preparation plans for the weekend’s expected events in the area of the Gaza Strip.
“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) continues to prepare for possible escalations with a wide variety of operational plans and is ready for a wide variety of events,” the army said.
Three infantry brigades and an artillery unit were dispatched to reinforce the Southern Command.
Source: Daily Sabah