Abdel Kareem Hana/AP
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hundreds of Hamas-backed activists on Saturday launched what they described as the first in a series of nighttime protests along the Israeli border, throwing explosives at Israeli forces who responded with live fire.
Organizers said the gatherings, which are set to last all week, are aimed at escalating pressure on Israel to ease the stifling economic blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.
“The occupation will not enjoy calm unless the siege on our beloved land is lifted,” said Abu Omar, a spokesman for the protesters.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade since Hamas, a group sworn to destroy Israel, seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after it won Palestinian elections.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of goods and people to and from Gaza, has decimated the strip’s economy. Israel has tightened the closure since the 11-day war in May, demanding the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and the release of two Israeli civilians believed to be held by Hamas.
Amateur footage and photos from inside Gaza showed hundreds of Palestinian protesters taking part in a rally on Saturday. Some appeared to be throwing explosives and chanting in celebrations as the explosions resounded.
The Israeli army said that the forces responded to the explosives by firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. She added that there were no casualties on the Israeli side.
Gaza health officials said three protesters were wounded by Israeli fire.
Recent similar protests have turned deadly
Earlier on Saturday, Gaza health officials said a 12-year-old Palestinian boy died of head injuries after being shot during a similar demonstration a week ago.
Another Palestinian man, identified as a member of Hamas’s military wing, was also killed at that demonstration, while a protester shot an Israeli soldier in the head at close range. The soldier remains in critical condition.
Hamas-linked activists also released a number of incendiary balloons from Gaza on Saturday afternoon, sparking two fires in southern Israel, according to the Israel Fire Service.
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies that have fought four wars and numerous skirmishes since 2007. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from collecting weapons, while critics say the blockade amounts to collective punishment.
Egypt has been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire that would ease the blockade and appeared to be making progress last week when it pressed Hamas to rein in a border protest on Wednesday.
The next day, Israel said it was easing some trade restrictions imposed on Gaza, allowing vehicles, goods and equipment for reconstruction projects to enter the Palestinian enclave. Israel said the easing could expand further if things remained calm.
The Israeli government reached an agreement with Qatar on August 19 allowing the Gulf state to resume aid payments to families in Gaza, a move aimed at easing tensions with Hamas. Israel suspended aid payments in May, saying the move was necessary to ensure Hamas did not benefit from the cash injection.
But Saturday night’s protest indicated that violence could escalate again soon.
At least 260 Palestinians were killed during the Gaza-Israel war in May, including 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas has admitted killing 80 activists. In Israel, 12 civilians, including two children and a soldier, were killed.