GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli troops shot and wounded 10 Palestinians on the Gaza border on Friday, Gaza medical officials said, as Israeli tanks massed on the eve of a huge rally to mark the first anniversary of the start of the deadly protests.
Egyptian mediators and humanitarian officials were working to avoid further bloodshed ahead of Saturday’s commemoration of the ‘Great March of Return’ border protests, which began on March 30 last year.
Around 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured by Israeli fire at the protests, Gaza medics say, as the demonstrations turned into an often deadly standoff between Gazans hurling rocks and petrol bombs and Israel troops on the other side of the fence.
Israel defends its use of lethal force, saying that its troops are defending the border and Israelis living near it.
With security already featuring prominently as an issue in Israeli elections due on April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza will be a key issue as he seeks a fifth term in office.
His right-wing coalition government launched air strikes and moved armor and reinforcements to the Gaza border this week after a Palestinian rocket attack wounded seven Israelis in a village north of Tel Aviv on Monday.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said it “continues to prepare for possible escalations with a wide variety of operational plans.”
In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that his Islamist faction had held three days of “marathon talks” with Egyptian mediators.
The focus of those talks, he said, had been on “resolving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in a way that will end the suffering of our people and preserve their dignity.”
Haniyeh warned that Hamas would consider Israel’s response to demands that it ease restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, help create jobs and permit more humanitarian aid. “In the light of that we will decide... how things will go in the coming hours,” he said.
The Gaza protesters are calling for the lifting of a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, and for Palestinians to have the right to return to land from which their families fled or were forced to flee during Israel’s founding in 1948.
Israel rejects any such return, fearing that it would lose its Jewish majority.
The blockade, which Israel said was imposed for security reasons, is cited by humanitarian agencies as a key reason for impoverishment in Gaza. A United Nations report in December said Gaza had an unemployment rate of 54 percent, rising to 70 percent among young people.
UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, issued a report on Friday saying the number of Gazans wounded during the border protests over the last 12 months had “brought an already strained health system to the brink of collapse.”
Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, appealed for both sides to take efforts to halt further bloodshed.
Speaking to Reuters in Gaza, McGoldrick said that, on the Palestinian side, he and his colleagues had expressed hopes that “people would not be put in harm’s way, in particular we expected children not to be put in places where there was the possibility of danger or violence to them.”
Israel, he said, should “use all possibilities in terms of crowd control and demonstrations and not using live ammunition, as they have in the past” in order to “prevent large numbers of injured and wounded.”
Israel and Hamas fought three wars from 2007-2014 and have come close to all-out conflict several times since.
Israel’s lethal response has been criticized by human rights groups, who say it is targeting protesters who pose little threat to heavily armed soldiers. U.N. investigators said last week that Israeli forces may be guilty of war crimes for using excessive force.
Israel rejects the criticism. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Hamas had fired 1,233 rockets from Gaza in the past year, set off 94 explosive devices and set fire to more than 8,000 acres of Israeli land.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson