By Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha
Palestinian protesters near the border fence east of Gaza City. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli soldiers have shot 16 people at the Gaza frontier on a day of rallies commemorating the mass displacement of Palestinians during the war that led to Israel’s creation in 1948.
Each year, typically on 15 May, Palestinians mark the nakba, or catastrophe, when more than 700,000 people fled or were expelled from towns and villages seven decades ago.
On Wednesday, large crowds gathered at the frontier after Hamas, which runs the enclave and supports the rallies, announced a general strike and closed schools to increase turnout.
Gaza’s health ministry said a total of 65 people were wounded by live fire, shrapnel, rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas. It said the 65 included 22 children and three paramedics.
A year ago Israeli snipers killed 60 people in a day at the Gaza frontier as thousands came out to protest against the opening of the US embassy in disputed Jerusalem, part of which Palestinians claim.
Since then, Israeli forces’ bullets have killed more than 200 people and wounded 7,000. A UN inquiry found Israel’s actions may amount to war crimes, as snipers had “shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities knowing they were clearly recognisable.”
There have been regular clashes between Israel and militants, raising the threat of a fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the latter came to power in Gaza in 2007.
Wednesday’s demonstrations were expected to be more muted that previous gatherings. In March, Israel and Hamas reached an unofficial deal in which Israel reportedly agreed to hold fire if Hamas kept people back from surging at the border fence.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said about 10,000 “rioters and demonstrators” gathered at several locations along the frontier. “The rioters are setting tyres on fire and hurling rocks. A number of explosive devices have been hurled within the Gaza Strip, and a number of attempts have been made to approach the security fence,” it said.
The IDF published a photo of a large fire in a field that it said was caused by an incendiary device. In several previous gatherings, Palestinians have attached cans of petrol to kites that are flown into Israeli territory and scorch fields.
Marches took place in the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, which is separated from Gaza.
Palestinian political factions and civil society groups have demanded an end to a severe Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza and for Palestinian refugees to be allowed back to their ancestral homes in Israel.
There are an estimated 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including the majority of Gaza’s 2 million residents. Israel says their return would affect the country’s Jewish majority.