GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinians rallied in Gaza on Tuesday for the funerals of scores of people killed by Israeli troops a day earlier, while on the Gaza-Israel border, Israeli forces took up positions to deal with the expected final day of a Palestinian protest campaign.
Monday’s violence on the border, which took place as the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, was the bloodiest for Palestinians since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
The death toll rose to 60 overnight after an eight-month-old baby died from tear gas that her family said she inhaled at a protest camp on Monday. More than 2,200 Palestinians were also injured by gunfire or tear gas.
Palestinian leaders have called Monday’s events a massacre, and the Israeli tactic of using live fire against the protesters has drawn worldwide concern and condemnation.
Israel has said it is acting in self-defense to defend its borders and communities. Its main ally the United States has backed that stance, with both saying that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave, instigated the violence.
There were fears of further bloodshed on Tuesday as Palestinians planned a further protest to mark the “Nakba”, or “Catastrophe”.
That is the day Palestinians lament the creation of Israel in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in violence culminating in war between the newly created Jewish state and its Arab neighbors in 1948.
A six-week campaign of border protests dubbed “The Great March of Return” has revived calls for refugees to have the right of return to their former lands, which now lie inside Israel.
It was unclear whether large crowds would turn up at the border on Tuesday for the climax to the campaign after the heavy fatalities suffered on Monday.
Palestinian medical officials say that 104 Gazans have now been killed since the start of the protests and nearly 11,000 people wounded, about 3,500 of them hit by live fire. No Israeli casualties have been reported.
Israeli troops backed by tanks deployed along the border again on Tuesday. The area was relatively quiet early in the day, with many Gazans at the funerals. Protesters are expected to go to the border later.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office condemned what it called the “appalling deadly violence” by Israeli forces and said it was extremely worried about what might happen later.
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Israel had a right to defend its borders according to international law, but lethal force must only be used a last resort, and was not justified by Palestinians approaching the Gaza fence.
More than 2 million people are crammed into the narrow Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Egypt and Israel and suffering a humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of mourners attended funeral ralies on Tuesday morning, many waving Palestinian flags and some calling for revenge.
“With souls and blood we redeem you martyrs,” mourners shouted as they walked in the funeral of two Palestinians in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
In Gaza City, hundreds marched in the funeral of eight-month-old Leila al-Ghandour, whose body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.
“Let her stay with me, It is too early for her to go,” her mother cried, pressing the baby’s body to her chest.
Speaking at a Gaza hospital earlier, her grandmother said the child was at one of the tented protest encampments that have been set up a few hundred yards inside the border.
“We were at the tent camp east of Gaza when the Israelis fired lots of tear gas,” Heyam Omar said.
“When we got back home, the baby stopped crying and I thought she was asleep. I took her to the children’s hospital and the doctor told me she was martyred (dead).”
Most of the protesters stay around the tent camps, but groups of youths have ventured closer to the no-go zone along the fence, risking live fire from Israeli troops to roll burning tyres and throw stones.
Some have flown kites carrying containers of petrol that have spread fires on the Israeli side.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered a general strike across the Palestinian Territories on Tuesday and three days of national mourning.
Monday’s protests were fired by the opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem following its relocation from Tel Aviv. The move fulfilled a pledge by U.S. President Donald Trump, who in December recognized the contested city as the Israeli capital.
Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move that is not recognized internationally, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.
Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.
Netanyhau praised Trump’s decisions but Palestinians have said the United States can no longer serve as an honest broker in any peace process. Talks aimed a finding a two-state solution to the conflict have been frozen since 2014.
Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the Gaza violence. Hamas denied instigating it but the White House backed Netanyahu.
“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters.
Trump, in a recorded message on Monday, said he remained committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He was represented at the embassy ceremony by his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, U.S. envoy to the Middle East.
The Trump administration says it has nearly completed a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan but is undecided on how and when to roll it out.
The United States on Monday blocked a Kuwait-drafted U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed “outrage and sorrow at the killing of Palestinian civilians” and called for an independent investigation, U.N. diplomats said.
Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan