GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Hundreds of Palestinians marched near the Israeli border in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday calling on Israel to ease a crippling blockade, days after a similar gathering resulted in deadly clashes with the Israeli army.
The Israeli military, which had reinforced their forces prior to the demonstration, said they were using tear gas and keen fires to disperse the crowd. Palestinian medics reported at least nine people injured, but their injuries were not immediately known.
Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television showed crowds approaching the fence and then running away when an Israeli military vehicle arrived. Tear gas was seen in the wind. The military said it uses .22 caliber rifle fire, a type of weapon that is said to be less lethal than more powerful firearms but can still be lethal.
Hundreds of participants stormed the fence during a demonstration on Saturday, resulting in violent clashes.
An Israeli soldier was critically injured when a Palestinian militant shot him in the head through a hole in the wall at close range while over 40 Palestinians were injured in Israeli fire. One of the wounded, Osama Dueji, died from his wounds on Wednesday. Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group identified him as a member of their armed wing.
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an Israeli military spokesman, said demonstrators fired guns and explosives at soldiers on Saturday and attempted to tear down the fence.
“You portray the unrest as peaceful,” he said. “In reality, these riots are extremely violent.” He declined to say how many troops had been mobilized on Wednesday but said the number was much larger than on Saturday and included counterinsurgency troops.
Hamas organized the protests to put pressure on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained the blockade since Hamas, a militant group that denies the existence of Israel, took control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning a Palestinian election. The blockade devastated the Gaza Strip’s economy and fueled an unemployment rate of around 50%. Israel says the blockade, which severely restricts the flow of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities.
Israel and Hamas have waged four wars and numerous skirmishes since 2007, most recently an 11-day battle in May that killed 260 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel.
Hamas accuses Israel of violating the ceasefire that ended the fighting by tightening the blockade. In particular, it has restricted the importation of materials needed for reconstruction. Israel has called for the return of the remains of two soldiers killed in a war in 2014, as well as the return of two Israeli civilians believed to be held in Hamas detention.
Last week, Israel reached an agreement with Qatar to allow the Gulf country to resume aid to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip.
Under the new system, payments from the United Nations will be made directly to families screened by Israel. In the past, aid was delivered directly to Hamas in the form of cash.
Payments are slated to begin in the coming weeks and bring some relief in Gaza.
But tensions remain high. In addition to the demonstrations, Hamas has allowed its supporters to launch incendiary balloons across the border, sparking a series of forest fires in southern Israel. Israel responded with a series of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
Egypt, serving as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, has worked to negotiate a longer-term ceasefire between bitter enemies.
This week, Egypt closed its border crossing with Gaza, the main exit point for the territory’s people to travel abroad, as a sign of frustration with Hamas.
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