GAZA CITY - Ahead of another day of protests, the death toll for those killed by Israeli forces at the Gaza boundary fence climbed to 59 on Tuesday after an infant died overnight from tear gas inhalation, according to local health officials.
Monday’s protests saw a level of bloodshed not seen in Gaza since the violent days of the 2014 war with Israel and more could be ahead as residents bury the dead and prepare to mark the anniversary of Israel’s founding, known to them as the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe.”
More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population is descended from refugees who were displaced at the time of Israel’s creation 70 years ago.
The death toll more than doubled the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza during six weeks of demonstrations, dubbed the “March of Return,” and came on the same day that a new U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.
Tuesday’s protests to mark the Nakba, however, are expected to be significantly smaller, after the organizing committee called for a day of mourning.
More than 2,700 people were injured, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, including 1,359 from live ammunition. The dead included at least seven children under the age of 18, among them a 15-year-old girl, the ministry said. The baby was eight months old and died after inhaling tear gas at the main protest area east of Gaza City, it added.
The United Nations said that “those responsible for outrageous human rights violations must be held to account,” and Human Rights Watch described the killings as a “bloodbath.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned a continuing “massacre” of the Palestinian people. Turkey and South Africa announced they were recalling their ambassadors from Israel.
The Trump administration, however, blamed Hamas for the loss of life. “The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah told reporters at a briefing. “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on the edges of the fenced-off and blockaded territory from midmorning. Many came to peacefully demonstrate, bringing their children and carrying flags. Food stalls sold snacks and music blared.
But the protests appeared to have a more violent edge than in previous weeks. Some young men brought knives and fence cutters. At a gathering point east of Gaza City, organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.
Gaza protests turn deadly as U.S. Embassy opens in Jerusalem
Israeli snipers were determined not to allow a breach, and Palestinian ambulances soon began screaming back and forth from the fence as gunshots rang out. No Israeli soldiers were injured, though, and Israel drew widespread condemnation for an excessive use of force.
The violence was a jarring contrast with the opening ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which drew first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Trump adviser Jared Kushner.
In Gaza, Hamas has given its backing to the demonstrations, which have galvanized people around a call to protest the loss of Palestinian homes and villages when Israel was formed in 1948.
At Gaza City’s main al-Shifaa hospital, medics said they were overwhelmed.
“I don’t know how we will manage,” Ayman al-Sahbani, the head of the emergency department, said as families jostled to get in to see injured relatives. “How long can this go on? How long?”
“We’ve reached the critical point now,” he said. “A lot of people need operations soon, but the operation room is full.”
Increasing economic hardship has fueled frustrations in Gaza, along with wider despair across Palestinian territories amid moves by a U.S. administration seen as wholeheartedly on Israel’s side in the decades-old conflict.
At least 110 Gazans have been killed over the past six weeks, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures.
At the demonstrations east of Gaza City, some said the force used by Israel would only bring further unrest.
Standing a few hundred meters from the fence, Nirma Attalah, 29, said her 22-year-old brother had been killed two weeks ago. “My brother was shot in the head in this place,” she said. She had come on Monday with her whole extended family. “We are here for Jerusalem, for Palestinian land,” she said.
Drones dropped canisters of tear gas, sending crowds fleeing. Other drones dropped leaflets that urged demonstrators to stay back from the fence.
While some said they would abide by official calls to keep the demonstrations peaceful, others talked about their enthusiasm to break into Israel and wreak havoc.
The Israeli military brought two extra brigades to the Gaza border in preparation for the demonstrations and added additional “defense lines” in an effort to prevent any mass invasion into Israeli communities near the border.
The military said at least 40,000 people protested in 13 places along the fence - more than twice as many locations as in past weeks of protest.
“Especially violent riots” took place near the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where three people were killed after trying to plant an explosive, the military added. The military also said it would “act forcefully against any terrorist activity,” and it carried out an airstrike on Hamas military posts in northern Gaza after Israeli troops came under fire.
At demonstrations near the Bureij Camp in central Gaza, Ahmed Loulou, 22, released a cluster of balloons carrying a Palestinian flag. He had written in marker: “We are returning. This is our land.”
The vast majority of demonstrators were unarmed, but near a parking area, a man pulled out an AK-47 and took aim at an Israeli drone dropping leaflets. He let off a stream of bullets into the air and brought it down. Later, more gunfire was heard as Palestinian factions argued over who would keep the downed drone, onlookers said.
As the death toll neared 50, loudspeakers called for protesters to leave the border area. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was called to Cairo on Sunday night in an apparent attempt to persuade the militant group to quell the demonstrations. No agreement was made, Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nounou said as he attended the protests. “They understood our points. Our people are showing their solidarity with Jerusalem today, and showing their anger with the U.S. administration.”
The demonstrations have proved to be a welcome distraction for Hamas, refocusing anger against Israel as frustration built against the group in Gaza.
At a news conference as evening fell, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayaa said the protests would continue.
“This blood will keep boiling until the occupation leaves forever,” he said.