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16 Palestinians Killed, Hundreds More Wounded In Violence Near Gaza Border


Today saw some of the most violent clashes in years between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops. Tens of thousands of people in Gaza answered the militant group Hamas' call to protest. They threw rocks and firebombs near the border fence with Israel. On the other side, Israeli troops assembled. Palestinian officials say at least 16 Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more were wounded. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now on the line from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.


SHAPIRO: Explain why this violence broke out today.

ESTRIN: Well, the demonstrations today were part of a campaign that was called the March of Return. It was to highlight the Palestinian demand to return to lands that are today a part of Israel. So a tent camp was set up along the border with Israel. And today was just day one of what is being called a six-week protest along the border.

And it was billed as an independent Palestinian protest campaign. But actually Hamas, which controls Gaza, was a driving force. It called from mosque loudspeakers, encouraging people to gather at the border. And according to the Israeli army, there were more than 30,000 Palestinians at six different spots along the border. Israel responded to Palestinians throwing rocks, firebombs, burning tires. Israel fired tear gas and live fire. It was the most violence in Gaza since the Gaza war in 2014.

SHAPIRO: What does Israel say about its response?

ESTRIN: Israel says Hamas is responsible for what happened today. It says Hamas endangered Palestinians lives by encouraging them to go to the border area, to a hostile zone. And Israeli military officials had been warning Palestinians on social media for days not to go there, arguing that Hamas was trying to distract Palestinians from their real everyday problems that they face in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: You've reported on violence and poverty in Gaza for years. What is the situation like there now?

ESTRIN: You know, people in Gaza tend to call it an open-air prison. Hamas took control of Gaza by force a decade ago. And since then, Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza. That prevents most people from being able to leave. It restricts what goods can enter Gaza. All of this is to try to pressure Hamas.

Hamas has fought three wars with Israel. Gaza still hasn't fully recovered from the last one. And the U.N. has warned of a humanitarian - possible humanitarian collapse in Gaza. There are water and sewage and electricity problems, high unemployment and internal - sorry - an ongoing internal Palestinian political fight that makes things even worse. So today, interestingly you saw on social media some Palestinians praising today's protests as a way to draw attention to their plight and others saying, you know, come on; people died here for nothing. Nothing was achieved.

SHAPIRO: You said this could go on for six weeks. What do you expect in the coming days?

ESTRIN: Well, tomorrow Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has declared a day of mourning for those killed. Palestinian officials - he and the Hamas militant group are praising what happened today. They're saying Palestinians stood up for their cause. Well, there will be funerals held tomorrow, and the protest, as you said, is supposed to continue. So we'll see if it - you know, if it turns violent like what we saw today.

SHAPIRO: Do people expect it to die down or ramp up from here?

ESTRIN: That's what we're going to be waiting - wait to see. But this was, you know, the largest Palestinian demonstration of its kind in years. We'll see if it continues.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks so much, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.