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Dozens killed in Gaza protests of U.S. Embassy move, officials say

A boy waves a Palestinian flag while walking

A boy waves a Palestinian flag while walking through smoke from burning tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel on Monday. Credit: AP / Khalil Hamra

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In a jarring contrast, Israeli forces shot and killed at least 55 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,200 during mass protests Monday along the Gaza border.

It was by far the deadliest day of cross-border violence since a devastating 2014 war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, and further dimmed the already bleak prospects for President Donald Trump’s hoped-for peace plan. Also on Monday, Israel and the United States held a festive inauguration ceremony for the new American Embassy in contested Jerusalem.

By nightfall, at least 55 Palestinians, including a young girl and four other minors, were killed, the Gaza Health Ministry said. It said 1,204 Palestinians were wounded by gunfire, including 116 who were in serious or critical condition.

Throughout the day, Gaza protesters set tires ablaze, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air, and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border. The Israeli military, which has come under international criticism for using excessive force against unarmed protesters, said Hamas tried to carry out bombing and shooting attacks under the cover of the protests and released video of protesters ripping away parts of the barbed-wire border fence.

At UN headquarters in Manhattan, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

“We condemn in the strongest terms this atrocity by the Israeli occupying forces using this massive firepower against civilians who have the right to demonstrate peacefully,” Mansour said Monday.

Mansour said his delegation had written a letter to Joanna Wronecka of Poland, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, to hold a meeting to discuss the conflict at Israel’s border with Gaza. The Security Council is set to meet Tuesday on the matter.

“We thus reiterate our appeal to the Council to act to end the occupation’s brutality and massacres against our people; to bring a halt to its massive violations of their human rights; to ensure protection to them; and to firmly uphold and implement all of its resolutions on the question of Palestine, including with regard to Jerusalem,” the letter stated.

Monday’s protests culminated more than a month of weekly demonstrations aimed at breaking a crippling Israeli-Egyptian border blockade. But the U.S. Embassy move, bitterly opposed by the Palestinians, added further fuel because the Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized.

Asked about the violence surrounding the opening of the new embassy, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah blamed the unrest on Hamas.

“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” Shah said at the White House daily press briefing Monday. “Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. And as the Secretary of State said, Israel has the right to defend itself.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement, saying he was “profoundly alarmed” at the uptick in violence, calling for restraint by Israeli forces and reminding Palestinian leaders that they have a responsibility to prevent violence and provocations.

“The ongoing violence underscores the urgent need for a political solution,” he said, adding “there is no viable alternative to the two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace, each with its capital in Jerusalem.”

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, placed the blame for the deaths and injuries on Hamas.

“Condemn Hamas for the war crimes they commit,” he said. “Not only does Hamas incite tens of thousands of Palestinians to breach the border and hurt Israeli civilians, but Hamas also deliberately endangers Palestinian civilians. The murder of Israeli civilians or deaths of the people of Gaza — each one of them is a desirable outcome for Hamas.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the international community to condemn what he said were “massacres” carried out by Israeli troops in Gaza, and officials said the Palestinians would file a war crimes complaint against Israel in the International Criminal Court over settlement construction.

Egypt, an important Israeli ally, condemned the killings of Palestinian protesters, while the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, decried the “shocking killing of dozens.”

Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations after Ankara accused Israel of “state terror” and condemned the death of the protesters as a “massacre.” The Turkish ambassador to the United States was being called home over the U.S. Embassy move, the Turkish Embassy in Washington stated.

South Africa, a fervent supporter of the Palestinians, recalled its ambassador for consultations, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called on Israel to respect the “principle of proportionality in the use of force” and show restraint, while also urging Hamas to ensure any protests remain peaceful.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said of Hamas: “They’re pushing people to the border. . . . you’re basically pushing people into circumstances where they are very likely to be shot at.” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called on Israel to refrain from excessive use of force.

Israel said the blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas overran the territory in 2007, is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities. But it has decimated Gaza’s economy, sending unemployment skyrocketing to over 40 percent and leaving the territory with just a few hours of electricity a day.

The Israeli military estimated a turnout of about 40,000 at Monday’s protest, saying it fell short of what Hamas had hoped for. But officials described what they called “unprecedented violence” unseen in previous weeks.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said hundreds of protesters carried out “concerted, coordinated” attacks on the border fence.

Although the crowd did not manage to break through, he said they caused “significant damage.” The army released video showing demonstrators setting a cargo crossing on fire and appearing to climb on the fence as they lobbed flaming objects into the Israeli side.

Conricus also said Hamas militants disguised as protesters tried to infiltrate, and there were at least three instances of armed Hamas gunmen trying to carry out attacks. Israeli aircraft and tanks struck seven Hamas positions.

Monday marked the biggest showdown in years between Israel’s military and Gaza’s Hamas rulers along the volatile border. The sides have largely observed a cease-fire since the 2014 war — their third in a decade.

Palestinians planned a day of mourning and mass funerals for Tuesday, which also marks the anniversary of what Palestinians call their “nakba,” or catastrophe, a reference to the uprooting of hundreds of thousands during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War surrounding Israel’s creation.

With Zachary R. Dowdy and Laura Figueroa Hernandez

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