By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – 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 sometimes deadly violence and Gaza medical officials said two Palestinians had been killed on Saturday.
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 tyres towards soldiers across the border fence, the Israeli military said.
Eager to get a big turnout on the anniversary, organisers set up loudspeakers at protest camps along the border, blaring out Palestinian nationalist songs at full volume. Hamas leaders 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.
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 organisers 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.
After 12 months of bloodshed, Egyptian mediators are working to avoid further confrontation, and to ease tensions by persuading Israel to lift restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip.
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 Hamas said 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 Reuters as he arrived at the protest.
Islamist Hamas rules the territory and has fought three wars with Israel in the past decade.
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.
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.
“In a year I will finish school. My father is unemployed so I will be unable to go to university. Who is responsible? Israel,” said 16-year-old protester Mohammed Ali. “I don’t know how many years will pass before our lives improve but we should continue (protests) as long as the occupation and the blockade exist.”
Israel seized Gaza in a 1967 war and pulled out its troops in 2005. It says the security blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel.
Israel’s use of lethal force has drawn censure from the United Nations and human rights groups. U.N. investigators last week said that Israeli forces may be guilty of war crimes for using excessive force.
Israel says its troops have no choice because they are trying to stop militants breaching the fence and attacking civilian communities in the area.
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.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Catherine Evans)