Thousands of Palestinian protestors have staged a demonstration on the Israeli-Gaza border, amid fears of more bloodshed after 27 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during rallies in the past two weeks.
Gaza health officials said 363 people were wounded by Israeli fire or treated for teargas inhalation in what was the third mass protest in as many weeks.
The weekly demonstrations are set to continue until mid-May, keeping tensions high along the volatile border.
Officials said a Gaza journalist was in a serious condition after being struck by a bullet in his abdomen.
Israeli forces fired teargas, rubber-coated steel pellets and live rounds. The military said demonstrators hurled an explosive device and several firebombs near the fence in what it said was an apparent attempt to damage it.
Most of the demonstrators assembled in five tent camps located several hundred yards from the border fence. Smaller groups moved closer to the fence, throwing stones, torching tyres and burning large Israeli flags, as well as posters of Israel’s prime minister and defence minister.
Large plumes of black smoke from burning tyres rose into the sky.
Footage distributed by the military showed an area of the fence made up of several layers of barbed wire coils.
Protesters stuck a Palestinian flag into the fence and affixed a rope, using it to tug at the coils. One man threw a burning tyre into the fence, while another was seen walking nearby with the help of a crutch.
Rights groups have branded the Israeli military’s open-fire regulations as unlawful, saying they permit soldiers to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.
Israel has accused Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers of using the protests as a cover for attacks and says snipers only target the main “instigators”.
The marches have been organised by Hamas, but large turnouts on two preceding Fridays were also driven by desperation among the territory’s 2 million residents.
Gaza has endured a border blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas overran the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections.
The blockade has driven Gaza deeper into poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 per cent and electricity available for fewer than five hours a day.
The marchers are protesting against the blockade, but are also asserting what they say is a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
About 2,000 people gathered on Friday at a tent camp east of Gaza City, one of five set up several hundred metres from the border fence.
Several dozen young men moved closer to the fence, some of them throwing stones. The Gaza health ministry said three Palestinians had been wounded by Israeli fire.
In the camp, 37-year-old construction worker Omar Hamada said he was protesting to draw world attention to Gaza and get the border reopened.
“We want to live like everyone else in the world,” he said. “We came here so the world can see us and know that life here is miserable, and that there should be a solution.”
Mr Hamada was critical of Hamas, saying the group has set back Gaza by decades, but added that “this is the reality and we have to deal with it”.
Critics argue Hamas’s refusal to disarm is a key reason for the continued blockade. One path towards lifting the blockade would be to have Hamas’s political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, take over the Gaza government, but recent Egypt-led talks on such a deal have run aground.
The protest camp was decked out in Palestinian flags. At the entrance, organisers had laid a large Israeli flag on the ground for protesters to step on.
The debate over Israel’s open-fire regulations has intensified with a rising number of dead and wounded since the first protests on 30 March.
In all, 34 Palestinians have been killed in the past two weeks, 27 during protests. Seven were killed in other circumstances, including six militants engaged in apparent attempts to carry out attacks or infiltrate Israel.
Gaza’s health ministry said some 1,300 Palestinians were wounded by live fire in the past two weeks.
The Israeli military has argued that Gaza militant groups are trying to turn the border area into a combat zone, and said it has a right to defend its sovereign border. It has said that soldiers fire live bullets as a last resort, in a “precise and measured manner”.
Human rights groups have said soldiers can only use lethal force if they face an apparent imminent threat to their lives.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Friday that the open-fire policy was “manifestly unlawful”.
Another Israeli group, Breaking the Silence, published a statement by five former snipers in the Israeli military who said they were “filled with shame and sorrow” over the recent incidents in Gaza.
“Instructing snipers to shoot to kill unarmed demonstrators, who pose no danger to human life, is another product of the occupation and military rule over millions of Palestinian people, as well as of our country’s callous leadership, and derailed moral path,” read the statement.
The group has been criticised in Israel for publishing often anonymous testimony by current or former Israeli soldiers who have misgivings about their military service and treatment of Palestinians.
Additional reporting by AP