GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – The Israeli military dropped leaflets and fired tear gas into Gaza early on Monday, warning Palestinians to stay away from the border with Israel as protesters gathered for the penultimate day of a six-week demonstration.
Protests are expected to escalate on Monday, the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Israel and the day the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will be officially opened.
In Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli forces fired gunshots and one protester was wounded in the leg, witnesses and Palestinian medics said.
The protests, dubbed the ‘Great March of Return,’ are scheduled to climax on Tuesday, the day that Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of them were driven out of their homes.
Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, has promised larger crowds in Gaza and elsewhere over the next two days.
Israel accuses Hamas of using the protests as a cover to launch attacks against the Gaza-Israel border fence, and Israeli soldiers on the other side. Hamas denies the charge.
The leaflets cautioned Gaza residents against approaching the fence or “attempting to sabotage it.” They referred to protesters as “rioters” and warned residents “not to serve as a tool for Hamas.”
They said the Israeli military would “continue to operate against those who wish to harm Israel’s security.”
Israeli troops have killed 45 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30, according Palestinian health officials, while no Israeli casualties have been reported.
The death toll has drawn international criticism.
The Israeli military says its troops are defending the border and firing in accordance with the rules of engagement.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli aircraft also dropped flammable material on Monday to burn tyres that protesters had stacked in preparation for them to be set on fire and rolled at the fence later on in the day.
The Israelis also fired tear gas at people inside the tented encampments that have sprung up along the border, witnesses said.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, told Israel Radio that Israel would treat the Gaza fence as an “Iron Wall” and anyone who approached it as a “terrorist”.
Reporting by Stephen Farrell; editing by John Stonestreet