As it happened: 55 Gazans killed by Israeli fire in bloodiest border clashes yet
SAID KHATIB (AFP)
Around 50,000 Palestinians staged mass protests in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Monday in what was deemed the most violent and extensive "Great March of Return" demonstrations to date, topping off weeks-long unrest.
Clashes along the Gaza border quickly turned deadly as Israeli troops fired towards the crowd surging towards the border fence, only hours before the US Jerusalem embassy inauguration even got underway.
It was described as the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since a 2014 Gaza war.
The total number of those killed by IDF fire now sits at 55, with numbers expected to rise. More than 2,400 Palestinians were reported wounded, a number that includes everyone who presented themselves for treatment to medics.
The dead included eight children under the age of 16, according to the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations.
Along the border, crowds built throughout the day along 12 different flash point locations. Hamas, rulers of the blockaded enclave had issued a call for thousands to breach the heavily fortified border security fence.
The embassy inauguration nonetheless went on as planned, attended by a Washington delegation that included US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides.
The army claimed that those killed in the clashes had attempted to plant explosives along the border fence. The IDF also claimed, that on two separate incidents, the protesters had fired at the Israeli troops.
In retaliation for the violence, the IDF confirmed that it had launched a string of airstrikes and a fighter jet struck five Hamas targets in the northern part of the Strip. Earlier in the day, the army struck two further military positions belonging to the militant group.
Jonathan Conricus, IDF military spokesman, alleged "we have seen three different squads, fully equipped terrorist squads with weapons, trying to plant IEDs at the (border) fence in three different locations."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the use of force, saying "every country has the obligation to defend its borders".
Israeli intelligence warned a day before that there could be attempts to vandalize IDF infrastructure near the border, while the IDF was also preparing against attempts to kidnap soldiers and massacre Israeli civilians.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of "massacres," while Amnesty International called the violence an "abhorrent violation" of human rights. Human Rights Watch denounced a "bloodbath".
The surge in fatalities led South Africa to recall its ambassador in Israel "with immediate effect until further notice" while condemning the deaths "in the strongest terms possible".
Turkey's government also recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Tel Aviv back to Ankara "for consultations" after President Tayyip Recep Erdogan's fierce criticism of the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Kuwait requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council for Tuesday and condemned the bloodshed.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "we expect all to act with utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life," while British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman urged "calm and restraint".
The US declined to back widespread calls for Israel to exercise restraint and took aim solely at Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday, Hamas posted pictures and maps on social media showing the shortest routes from the border fence to nearby Israeli communities in case any protesters manage to breach the security fence.
Israeli jets dropped leaflets on Monday morning warning Gazans who plan to take part in the protests against approaching the security fence that the army “will act against every attempt to damage the security fence or harm IDF soldiers or Israeli civilians”.
The protests on Monday took place on the 70th anniversary of Israel's founding, the day after which is mourned by Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe," commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.