3 protesters killed at Gaza border, hundreds wounded, Gaza medics report

Israeli troops shot dead three protesters along the Gaza border on Friday, Gaza medics said, hours after the United Nations human rights chief criticized Israel for using "excessive force" against demonstrators.

Weeks-long campaign of demonstrations centres on right of return for Palestinian refugees

A wounded demonstrator is evacuated from a protest site during clashes with Israeli troops along the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Israeli troops shot dead three protesters along the Gaza border on Friday, Gaza medics said, hours after the United Nations human rights chief criticised Israel for using "excessive force" against demonstrators.

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops since Gaza residents began staging protests along the border fence on March 30 to demand the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Estimates of the number of dead and wounded vary, with The Associated Press reporting 38 dead and 1,600 wounded and Reuters citing 41 dead and 5,000 wounded.

On Friday, the troops were holed up behind fortifications on their side of the 40-kilometre border fence and fired live ammunition and tear gas at protesters at five locations on the Gazan side.

The Israeli military said 10,000 Gazans were participating in what it described as "riots" and that some had tried to breach the border into Israel. It said troops "had operated in accordance with the rules of engagement" to stop people crossing the border.

The Gaza health ministry said at least 200 were wounded by gunfire, including a Palestinian journalist who was hit in the foot by a bullet, although other sources gave higher estimates for the number of wounded.

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators at the protest. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Dozens more people, including four medics, were treated for gas inhalation, as Israeli forces showered the area with tear gas canisters from behind their fortifications in Israel.

Protesters hurled stones and rolled burning tyres toward the fence, and some attached cans of burning petrol to kites and flew them into Israeli territory.

Others cleared away barbed wire coils, which Israeli troops had placed in Gazan territory overnight in a bid to create a buffer zone between protesters and the fence.

Peace talks stalled

The protests have come at a time of growing frustration for Palestinians as prospects for an independent Palestinian state look poor. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called the loss of life deplorable and said a "staggering number" of injuries had been caused by live ammunition.

Palestinian protesters cut part of a fence placed by the Israeli army, during the protest along the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

Israel's foreign ministry had no immediate comment, but the government has consistently said it is protecting its borders and that its troops are following rules of engagement.

Israel's UN envoy, Danny Danon, told the Security Council on Thursday that Hamas in Gaza was responsible for Palestinian casualties and that it was using innocent Palestinian women and children as human shields while they cowered behind in safety.

"The terrorists are hiding while allowing, even hoping, for their people to die. This is evil in its purest form," he said.

Hamas denies the Israeli accusations.

"Danon's comments are an attempt to escape responsibility and to cover up for the execution of unarmed children and people by occupation soldiers," said Hamas official Mushir Al-Masri. 

Named the "Great March of Return," the protest action revives a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Israel refuses any right of return, fearing that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

With files from The Associated Press