Dozens killed in Gaza protests ahead of U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least 41 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border on Monday.

It was the deadliest day there since a devastating 2014 cross-border war and cast a pall over Israel’s festive inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem.

In a show of anger fueled by the embassy move, protesters set tires on fire, sending plumes of black smoke into the air, and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border.

The Israeli military said its troops had come under fire, and accused protesters of trying to break through the border fence. It said troops shot and killed three Palestinians who were trying to plant a bomb.

The steadily climbing death toll and wall-to-wall condemnation of the embassy move by the Arab world raised new doubts about President Donald Trump’s ambitions to broker what he once said would be the Mideast “deal of the century.”

By midafternoon, at least 41 Palestinians, including five minors, were killed, the Gaza Health Ministry said. One of the minors was identified as a girl.

At least 772 protesters were wounded, including 86 in serious or critical condition.

At the same time, just 45 miles away in Jerusalem, the opening ceremony of the embassy got under way.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman welcomed the crowd.

“Today we open the United States embassy in Jerusalem Israel,” he said to warm applause.

The new embassy will temporarily operate from an existing U.S. consulate, until a decision has been made on a permanent location.

Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, both top aides to President Trump, led a high-powered American delegation that also included the treasury secretary and four Republican senators.

In Gaza, the Hamas-led protest was meant to be the biggest yet in a weeks-long campaign against a decade-old blockade of the territory.

The Israeli military estimated a turnout of about 40,000, saying this fell short of what Hamas had hoped for.

The march was also directed at the inauguration of the embassy.

Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a key Trump campaign promise — infuriated the Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as a future capital.

“A great day for Israel!” Trump tweeted Monday.

Monday marked the biggest showdown in years between Israel’s military and Gaza’s Hamas rulers along the volatile border. The sides have largely observed a cease-fire since the 2014 war — their third in a decade.

The protests mark the culmination of a campaign, led by Hamas and fueled by despair among Gaza’s 2 million people, to break the blockade of the territory imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Since weekly border marches began in late March, 83 Palestinian protesters have been killed and more than 2,500 wounded by Israeli army fire. Hamas said four members, including three security men, were among the dead Monday.

Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas figure, said the mass border protests against Israel will continue “until the rights of the Palestinian people are achieved.”

“Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will be a disaster on the American administration and a black day in the history of the American people because they are partners with the occupation and its aggression against the Palestinian people,” he added.

Hamas leaders have suggested a border breach is possible Monday, something Israel has vowed to prevent at any cost.

Most of the casualties were in the southern Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Israeli forces were firing volleys of tear gas to disperse the crowds, and the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard.

Sirens were constantly wailing as the wounded were evacuated on stretchers to nearby ambulances. Groups of young activists repeatedly approached the fence, but were quickly scattered by gunfire and tear gas.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the army had set up additional “layers” of security in and around communities near the border to defend Israeli civilians in case of a mass breach.

He said there already had been several “significant attempts” to break through the fence.

“Even if the fence is breached, we will be able to protect Israeli civilians from attempts to massacre or kidnap or kill them,” he said.

In a statement, the army said troops had shot and killed three Palestinians who attempted to plant a bomb along the fence. It also said an aircraft had targeted a Hamas post in northern Gaza after Israeli troops came under fire.

The timing of Monday’s events was deeply symbolic to Israel and the Palestinians.

The U.S. said it chose the date to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.

But it also marks the anniversary of what Palestinians call their “nakba,” or catastrophe, a reference to the uprooting of hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s independence.

A majority of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of refugees, and the protests have been billed as the “Great March of Return” to long-lost homes in what is now Israel.

 

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