GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — At least 41 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces and almost 1,960 others were wounded after thousands of protesters converged on the razor wire fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel just hours before the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.
The Israeli Defense Forces accused Hamas of "leading a terrorist operation under the cover of masses of people," adding that "firebombs and explosive devices" as well as rocks were being thrown towards the fence.
The Israeli military said the demonstration involved 35,000 people "taking part in violent riots" at 12 locations along the barrier. The 40-mile fence was built by Israel along Gaza’s land border for security reasons in 1994.
The protest near the boundary started on March 30. Monday's march was meant to express anger over U.S. Embassy's inauguration, while Tuesday will mark “Nakba” or Catastrophe Day, when Palestinians observe the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv breaks with decades of Washington policy and distances America from its allies. Palestinians consider Jerusalem their capital.
The protest movement started not with a bullet or a bomb, but with a hashtag.
“What if 200,000 demonstrators came out in a peaceful march and broke into the barbed wire east of Gaza,” wrote Ahmed Abu Artema in a Facebook post on Jan. 7.
“What can a heavily-armed occupation do to those peaceful human waves?” the 32-year-old Palestinian journalist asked.
Artema ended the post with #GreatMarchofReturn — a slogan that quickly went viral and then, two months later, blossomed into reality.
A total of 90 have died and more than 11,200 others wounded since a maiden protest on March 30, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. Several hundred of the injured protesters were kids, according to Save the Children.
Marchers say they have continued to turn out for the weekly demonstrations because they have so little to lose. More than a decade under Israeli and then Egyptian blockades has left the enclave’s 2 million people, particularly its youth, largely jobless and hopeless.
In Gaza, fresh water is unsanitary and the seas are polluted with raw sewage. Power lasts as little as four hours a day while medical care and education are abysmal. Peace seems increasingly far off and, for most Gazans, gaining permission to leave is impossible without solid education or job opportunities abroad.
“The youth really struggle with a lack of prospects and hope of a good life,” said recent graduate Anass Jnena, 23. “I have seen friends really weep in silence because they could not get to travel out.
The movement spawned from Artema’s Facebook post has defied much of the conventional wisdom about Gazan resistance to Israel’s more than decade-long blockade. It has remained relatively peaceful, largely free from domination by powerful militant factions and inclusive of female activists.
“Everybody agrees that this is a kind of public struggle,” Artema told NBC News as he strolled through clumps of men, women and children sitting on the ground and in tents near the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel on Friday, the seventh weekly demonstration since the protests began on March 30. “We are against any faction or party taking this march into their agenda.”
The movement’s explicit demand is what Palestinians refer to as their “right of return” — the demand that Israel allow the return of millions of Palestinians whose families left or were forcibly removed from Israel at its founding in 1948. Refugees and their descendants make up more than two-thirds of Gaza’s population.
Decades of Israeli leaders have argued that allowing millions of Palestinians to return would diminish the Jewish state’s foundational character.
But it was the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem that became the major motivating factor, according to organizers and participants.
“We felt that the American administration is working against the Palestinians in this issue,” said Isam Hammad, 52, the regional manager of a medical equipment company who said he volunteered to help Artema the day he read his Facebook post. “We felt this all the time but not as clear as this.”
Getting powerful groups to join — but not dominate — the movement took convincing, said Salah Abdel Ati, the head of the Great March of Return’s International and Legal Committee. Gaza been ruled by militants Hamas since they won elections in 2006.
Broad buy-in is part of the strategy. Organizers say the “Great March of Return” is financed by small donations and governed by a central committee of about 27 seats populated by representatives from some 18 political and civil society groups — including the dominant West Bank political party Fatah, as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which are recognized by the U.S. as terrorist organizations.
Despite the march's high ideals, demonstrators have resorted to violence — throwing stones, rolling burning tires and lofting “incendiary kites” to ignite Israeli fields on the other side of the fence.
“I do understand why they throw stones,” said Anas Inaina, 25, a project coordinator. “You do not throw flowers when you are just suffocating here.”
But human rights groups have faulted Israel for answering rudimentary weapons with live ammunition. The Israeli Defense Forces have said that was necessary to protect Israeli citizens.
Israeli officials are anxious to prevent a breach massive breach of the fence and potential attacks on its citizens in communities on the other side of the barrier. They have warned Palestinians to keep well away from the boundary.
During the maiden demonstration on March 30, Israeli soldiers killed more than 20 protesters. Video footage showed several people being shot as they ran away.
The death toll jumped substantially on Monday.
A few minutes ago, IDF jets once again distributed leaflets warning against approaching the security fence, attempting to sabotage it or to carry out terror attacks pic.twitter.com/dJcBcUYiiz
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 14, 2018
No Israelis have been killed or injured.
Keeping the protests peaceful has been one of the organizers’ principal challenges, particularly reining in desperate young men.
The presence of women and children has had a calming influence — a novelty for Gaza resistance that Israeli officials have likened to the use of human shields. On Friday, women could be seen cooking and distributing food but also joining men on the front line.
“Women are taking places there and they are also welcome there and participating as equal as men,” said Alorjwan Fhurrab, 23, a recent graduate who is unemployed.
When Fhurrab joined the march one Friday in April, she said she was forced to flee when Israeli snipers opened fire.
“I was running as fast as the young men ran!” she said, but added “some young men were telling me to run faster in order for me to be safe.”
Organizers and rank-and-file activists hope the movement will remain a peaceful force beyond this week. But they also worry that a violent reaction from Israel could lead to an unmanageable situation — one that would once again push violent groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the forefront.
“We believe we will continue,” said Ati. “That’s one scenario. The other scenario is if the Israelis kill more people, if there’s a massacre … maybe we will go to war."
Matt Bradley, Charlene Gubash and Wajjeh Abu Zarifa reported from Gaza City, Paul Goldman from Jerusalem, Lina Dandees from Tel Aviv, and Jason Cumming and F. Brinley Bruton from London.