Israeli fire killed at least 41 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border today, marking the deadliest day of violence there since a devastating 2014 cross-border war and casting a pall over Israel's festive inauguration of the new US Embassy in contested Jerusalem.
In a show of anger fuelled 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.
By mid-afternoon, 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.
The Hamas-led protest in Gaza was meant to be the biggest yet in a weeks-long campaign against a decade-old blockade of the territory. The march was also directed at the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Today 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 fuel ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS 5THLD CLASHESISRAEL-PALESTINIANS 5THLD CLASHESISRAEL-PALESTINIANS 5THLD CLASHESed by despair among Gaza's 2 million people, to break the decade-old border 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 today.
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 US 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 today, 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 carried 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. 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 today's events was deeply symbolic, both to Israel and the Palestinians.
The US 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.
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