Sunday 24 February 2019

55 dead in Gaza on day of bloody massacre

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians run for cover from tear gas. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Israeli troops killed at least 55 Palestinians during mass protests on the Gaza border yesterday as the US opened its new Jerusalem embassy.

At least six children under the age of 18 were among the dead and about 2,700 were wounded as the protests quickly turned to bloodshed.

Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital has angered the Palestinians and been labelled a setback to peace efforts.

But at the ceremony to open the embassy in the holy city, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the US president for "having the courage to keep your promises".

"What a glorious day for Israel," Mr Netanyahu said. "We are in Jerusalem and we are here to stay."

Mr Trump was represented at the ceremony by his daughter Ivanka - whom he has appointed as a senior adviser - and her husband Jared Kushner.

In a recorded message played at the ceremony, the president said he remained committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But on the border of the Gaza Strip, the number killed quickly rose to the highest death toll in a single day since protests by Palestinians demanding to be given the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel began on March 30.

The latest casualties raised the Palestinian death toll to 91, marking the worst bloodshed since the 2014 Gaza War. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

France called on Israel to show restraint and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply concerned".


Tens of thousands of Palestinians had streamed to the coastal enclave's land border, some approaching the Israeli fence - a line Israeli leaders said they would not be allowed to breach.

Clouds of black smoke from burning tyres rose in the air as demonstrators, some armed with slingshots, hurled stones at the Israeli security forces,.

They hit back with volleys of tear gas and intense rounds of gunfire.

"Today is the big day when we will cross the fence and tell Israel and the world we will not accept being occupied forever," said science teacher Ali, who refused to give his last name.

Mr Trump's recognition of the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December outraged Palestinians, who said the United States could no longer serve as an honest broker in any peace process with Israel.

Palestinians seek to have East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city as its "eternal and indivisible capital".

The Palestinians shot dead yesterday included a medic and a man in a wheelchair who was seen using a slingshot.

The army claimed three of those killed were armed militants who tried to place explosives near the fence.

Some protesters flew flaming kites to try and torch bushes on the other side and distract Israeli marksmen. Hundreds of Palestinians were treated for tear gas inhalation.

"The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) will act forcefully against any terrorist activity and will operate to prevent attacks against Israelis," the military said in a statement.

The killings have drawn much criticism in recent weeks, but the US has echoed Israel in accusing Gaza's ruling Hamas movement of instigating the violence, an allegation it denies.


Spokesman Raj Shah accused Hamas' leaders of making a "gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt" that led to the clashes in Gaza at the same time the US was opening its new embassy in Jerusalem, a move that has fueled Palestinian anger.

At a White House briefing, Shah also declined to join with other countries, including France and Britain, in calling for Israel to exercise restraint in its response to the protests.

The White House instead reiterated the Trump administration's refrain, in response to weeks of violence on the Israel-Gaza border, that Israel had a right to defend itself.

"The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas," Shah said. "Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response."

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah accused the United States of "blatant violations of international law".

"Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history to open the embassy shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process," Mr Hamdallah wrote.

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