At least 15 Palestinians have died in the occupied Gaza strip after Israeli soldiers opened fire on Friday evening, marking the single deadliest day in the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 2014 war in Gaza.
An estimated 30,000 Palestinian protesters gathered along the 40-mile fence dividing Gaza from the rest of the country on Friday, demanding that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be permitted the “right of return” to their ancestral home. The event marked Land Day, which protests the annexation of Palestinian-owned land from the Galilee region to the Negev desert area in 1976.
Friday’s protest was meant to be the first day of a six-week peaceful demonstration set to culminate on May 15, the day on which Palestinians commemorate the “Nakba” (“catastrophe”) — when the state of Israel was created. This endeavor was organized by Hamas, the ruling political party.
Many protesters brought their families — including young children — to Friday’s event.
After several youths threw rocks and burning tires, Israeli soldiers opened fire on the crowd, wounding at least 773 people. Gaza’s health ministry initially said 16 people had been killed, but later revised that number to 15.
“Most of the dead were aged between 17 and 35 years old,” said ministry spokesperson Dr Ashraf al-Qidra. “The injuries were on the upper part of the body.” He said that those injured were “shot with live ammunition.”
He added that hospitals were running low on several blood types, posing a potentially deadly threat to many of the wounded.
Following the tragedy, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a national day of mourning. Abbas said Israeli officials bore “full responsibility” for the deaths as thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals of those killed.
“The message of the Palestinian people is clear,” said a spokesperson for Abbas. “The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”
The U.N. Security Council, which held an emergency meeting following the violence, soundly condemned the massacre.
“Israel must uphold its responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law,” U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun said.
A statement for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed that he was “deeply concerned” and called for an “independent and transparent investigation into these incidents.”
But the Israeli military argued that soldiers had only targeted “rioting” Palestinians and accused Hamas of “terror attacks under the camouflage of riots.” Officials also signaled a willingness to escalate the situation, threatening Palestinians with severe consequences should the protests continue.
“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” said Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis.
Friday’s massacre coincided with the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt in their quest for freedom and autonomy. Drawing connections between the tragedy and the holiday, a number of prominent Jews spoke out online against the massacre.
“Going into Pesach feeling sick about rising death toll in Gaza,” wrote Rabbi Jill Jacobs, using the Hebrew word for Passover. “On holiday of freedom, praying (& committing to work) for future in which both Palestinians & Israelis are free, in their own countries, with human rights & security. This freedom can’t come for one without the other[.]”
There has been no comment on the massacre from the White House.