SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Gaza officials say Israeli troops have killed at least 29 Palestinians during more than a week of protests near the border fence with Israel. Gaza officials say at least eight were killed Friday. The protests take place in the flat farmlands around the border fence where tens of thousands of Palestinians have been gathering, some of them far from the fencing and smaller numbers throwing rocks right up at the barrier. Israel says it won't tolerate people approaching the border or threatening troops, but it's being accused of using unnecessary force. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Gaza City and joins us now to talk about the aftermath of the large protests yesterday. Hey, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.
DETROW: So you were at the border yesterday. What did you see?
ESTRIN: Well, Palestinians burned tires at the border and created this thick, black smoke screen to block soldiers' view. Israel said it used a big fan to blow the smoke away. I was several hundred yards away from the border in an area where the Israeli army said it would be safe for people to gather. There were also many other Palestinians there, too, staging a kind of sit-in. And at one point, there was very loud and rapid gunfire. We dropped to the ground, and then we and lots of other people around us ran away.
One of the people killed yesterday at a different spot on the border was a Palestinian photojournalist. He was covering the protests. Photos showed him wearing a protective vest marked press at the time he was shot. This morning, I watched Palestinian reporters marching with his body, and he was just one of those killed Friday. And Palestinian officials say nearly 500 people were hit with live fire with at least 30 in critical condition.
DETROW: So what is Israel saying about this high number of people wounded and those killed?
ESTRIN: Israel says that two of those killed yesterday were affiliated with militant groups. And it's saying it's looking into the deaths and investigating the death of the Palestinian photojournalist. A spokesman of the army said it's looking into the circumstances and whether it was even Israeli army fire that killed him. Israel says protesters posed a threat yesterday. It says Palestinians tried eight times yesterday to throw homemade explosives toward the border fence. The military also had no comment about the hundreds reported injured Friday. A spokesman had told me earlier yesterday that no one gets shot by standing and looking and soldiers shoot after commanders specifically approve this shooting. Palestinians and human rights groups are saying that protesters were unarmed and that Israel has used disproportionate force.
DETROW: This has been rapidly escalating, but can you take us back a little bit and give us the context of how this got started?
ESTRIN: It's a campaign that's been in the works for a while, the Great March of Return, a demonstration to demand that Palestinians be allowed to return to lands they lost 70 years ago when Israel was founded. But Hamas and other Palestinian factions are part of a leadership committee overseeing these protests. They call it a peaceful protest. Israel says Hamas is turning the border area into an area of combat.
DETROW: So looking at Israel and Gaza and what people are saying, do you think there's any way for them to reduce the intensity of this at this point?
ESTRIN: We're going to have to see. I met a Hamas official who's on the leadership committee of the protests, and he said these protests will continue and that they will culminate in a huge demonstration in mid-May. And he said leaders of the protest will decide whether to call on people at that final protest to try to cross the Israeli border, which could certainly draw a forceful Israeli response. The Israeli army is saying that one of its goals with its actions on the border is to give the Israeli public a sense of security.
DETROW: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Gaza City. Daniel, thank you and stay safe.
ESTRIN: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.