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, while just a few miles away Israel and the U.S. held a festive inauguration ceremony for the new American Embassy in contested Jerusalem.
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 prospects for President Donald Trump's hoped-for peace plan.
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.
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.
There was barely any mention of the Gaza violence at Monday's inauguration ceremony for the new embassy, an upgraded consular building located just 50 miles away. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials joined an American delegation of Trump administration officials and Republican and evangelical Christian supporters.
The Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as their capital, have cut off ties with the Trump administration and say the U.S. is unfit to serve as a mediator. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, furious over the embassy ceremony, said he "will not accept" any peace deal proposed by the Trump administration.
The Palestinian president also 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.
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.
Egypt, an important Israeli ally, condemned the killings of Palestinian protesters, while the U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, decried the "shocking killing of dozens."
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. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a similar appeal.
The U.N. Security Council set a meeting today to discuss the violence.
At the U.S. Embassy ceremony in Jerusalem, Jared Kushner placed the blame on the Gaza protesters.
"As we have seen from the protests of the last month and even today, those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution," he said.
Responsibility for the violence Monday rested "squarely with Hamas," said Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, for "intentionally and cynically provoking" Israel by urging Palestinians to storm the border fence. "Israel has the right to defend itself," he said.
In Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, deputy chief of Hamas, blamed the United States for inciting the violence by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, reversing decades of U.S. policy and defying international consensus. "The American administration bears responsibility for all consequences following the implementation of this unjust decision," he said.
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.
Some in the crowds were planting or hurling explosives, Israel said, and many were flying flaming kites into Israel: At least one kite outside the Nahal Oz kibbutz, across the fence from Gaza City, ignited a wildfire.
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.
Since the protests began on March 30, 105 Palestinians have been killed, most of them protesters. Israel said it killed three militants trying to plant a bomb along the fence, and Palestinian security officials said several Hamas militants were also killed by Israeli shelling in northern Gaza.
Israel has made clear throughout the protests that it holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from Gaza, and Conricus made no apologies for the body count. "Hamas is killing Gaza," he said. "We, on the other hand, are defending our homes."
Throughout the day, sirens wailed as the wounded were carried to ambulances. Groups of young activists repeatedly approached the fence, but were quickly scattered by gunfire and tear gas.
Information for this article was contributed by Fares Akram, Josef Federman, Ilan Ben Zion, Mohammed Daraghmeh and Karin Laub of The Associated Press; and by David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times.
A Section on 05/15/2018
Print Headline: 55 protesters killed at Gaza fence