Border protests: Palestinian killed by Israeli fire, officials say

Israeli forces have killed a Palestinian man at the Gaza frontier, hours before mass protests marking the anniversary of the demonstration movement, the enclave’s ministry of health said.

Muhammad Sa’ad, 20, was hit in the head by shrapnel caused by Israeli fire, the ministry said. It did not say where he was at the time of his death. Small gatherings by Palestinians had been held overnight at the frontier before the planned rally. The Israel army said on Friday night that “explosive devices” had been hurled at the dividing fence.

The demonstrations have received backing from political factions in Gaza, including the strip’s ruler, Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel. The UN had urged Israel and Hamas to avoid a violent escalation on Saturday.

Late on Friday, Hamas officials were reported as saying the group had agreed to an Egyptian deal to foster calm on the frontier, by agreeing to prevent protesters approaching the fence. In exchange, Israel would allow additional aid in to Gaza and not fire on people who remained far from the frontier. Neither side officially confirmed the reports.

A committee that organised the protest, which include Hamas, released a statement calling for participants to keep the demonstration peaceful, stay 200 metres from the perimeter – behind which Israeli forces are stationed – and not to burn tyres, a tactic used in previous events to obscure the sights of snipers.

When the protest movement was first launched on 30 March 2018, Israeli soldiers shot dead 16 Palestinians. Demonstrators have demanded recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and elsewhere to return to their ancestral homes in Israel and for an end to a punishing decade-long blockade that they call a “siege”.

Weekly gatherings have diminished in size but continued for 12 months, despite the fact that none of the protesters’ demands were agreed to by Israel.

During that period, Israeli soldiers have killed 194 people – including three medics, two journalists and 40 children – and wounded close to 29,000 others. A quarter of all injuries – more than 7,000 people – were shot with live ammunition, according to UN figures. More than 120 limb amputations have been carried out.

One member of the Israeli security forces has been killed and six others were injured in incidents related to the “Great March of Return”. The Israeli security minister, Aryeh Deri, said this week: “The military will resort to a very strong hand against anyone trying to confront our troops.” Israel has dismissed the protests as a cover by militants to attack the fence, troops behind it and Israeli communities further back.

A UN commission tasked with investigating these claims found demonstrations were at times violent, with protesters hurling stones, surging forward and cutting through the fence. People have launched kites and balloons with incendiary devices attached to float into and burn Israeli fields.

However, it said the demonstrations were almost entirely civilian in nature and the use of lethal force against the protesters was neither necessary nor proportionate.

Israeli snipers, using high-velocity bullets with sophisticated optical scopes, may have committed war crimes by deliberately firing on civilians last year, the probe found. Many were hit hundreds of metres from the fences.

The sharpshooters, said one member of the UN independent inquiry, “shot at unarmed protesters, children and disabled persons, and at health workers and journalists performing their duties, knowing who they are”.

Bloodshed at the border has raised the prospect of further hostilities between Israel and Hamas, and the long-time enemies have fought multiple battles during the past year, often following particularly deadly protest days at the fence. Hamas fires rockets and mortars while Israel uses tanks and airstrikes.