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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

In Gaza, pain but few regrets after deadliest day in years

More than 800 people have been shot by Israeli forces in three days: Gaza Health Ministry

A Palestinian youth swings a sling shot during clashes after a demonstration near the border with Israel. Said Khatib / AFP
A Palestinian youth swings a sling shot during clashes after a demonstration near the border with Israel. Said Khatib / AFP

Palestinian teen Bassel Al Helo winced in pain as he rolled over in a hospital bed on Sunday, after having been shot by Israeli soldiers during a protest on the Gaza-Israel border.

It could take years for the 16-year-old to recover from the deep leg wound sustained at Friday's demonstration, but he says he would do it again.

"I don't regret it," he said, as his mother beside him buried her head in her hands with a resigned smile.

Throughout Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, young Palestinians lay wounded, surrounded by doting relatives handing out chocolates.

Seventeen Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded when a mass protest near the border led to clashes, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, in the deadliest single day in the territory since a 2014 war with Israel.

It said a total of more than 800 Gazans had been shot by Israeli forces since Friday.

Israel's military says it only fired at those who were throwing stones and firebombs or rolling burning tyres at soldiers.

It also alleges there were efforts to damage the fortified fence cutting off the blockaded Gaza Strip and to infiltrate Israel, as well as an attempted shooting at soldiers.

Palestinians say protesters were shot while posing no danger to soldiers, while rights groups have questioned Israel's use of live fire.

Some of the injured told AFP that they were at the front throwing stones at soldiers, while others said they were struck seemingly at random.

They felt they had little to lose because of dire poverty in Gaza and that they would return to protest once they had recovered.

"I was a little way from the border. Suddenly, random and intense shooting broke out and people began to fall in front of me, including a friend," said Bassel.

"As I went to help him, I was shot."

The bullet struck his right leg, shattering and leaving shrapnel lodged under the skin. Metal rods now stick out of the leg on which he was operated.

"I went to see and show solidarity. I didn't expect to be shot," said the teenager, who was wounded east of Gaza City and insisted he was not throwing stones.

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The European Union and UN chief Antonio Guterres have called for an independent investigation into the violence, but Israel has rejected any such action.

The army has said it carefully targeted primary instigators and claims more than half of the 16 killed were members of radical groups.

Gaza's ruling Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, has said five of the dead were members of its armed wing.

Israel also argues that the protest's demand for the return of Palestinian refugees amounted to calling for the Jewish state to cease to exist.

Farther down the hall, 15-year-old Ali Zeer slept as blood slowly dripped through a tube connected to his body near the bullet wound in his chest.

His mother, 39, said all nine of her children took part in the main protest – attended by tens of thousands – but Ali chose to go closer to the fence than the rest.

"This was a peaceful protest. He didn't throw any stones," she said.

Another man stood over his cousin Shadi, who he said was shot about 70 metres from Israeli soldiers as he tried to move a Palestinian flag forward.

Israel has for a decade imposed a blockade on Gaza that it says aims to isolate Hamas, but which critics say amounts to collective punishment for the territory's two million residents.

Egypt has largely sealed its border with the enclave in recent years, while the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has also carried out a series of punitive measures against the strip.

The United Nations envoy recently warned that the strip was on the verge of a "total systems failure", adding that "Gaza risks exploding in our face again".

On the border on Sunday evening, a few hundred youths moved towards Israeli troops about 100 metres away, occasionally being dispersed by tear gas.

A few dozen metres back, a middle-aged couple sat drinking frozen lemonade while watching.

Asked why they came, 58-year-old Hani Al Masri cited the economy – "no jobs, no electricity".