Three Palestinians died Saturday in protests at the border fence between Gaza and Israel, on the one-year anniversary of the start of weekly demonstrations against a Gaza blockade.
Palestinian health authorities said Israeli soldiers shot and killed two 17-year-olds during the day of protests, while a 21-year-old demonstrator died after being shot near the border fence overnight.
Thousands of mostly young Palestinian men turned out for the protest, organized by the Islamic Hamas movement. The rally coincided with a sandstorm, which appeared to lessen the expected turnout.
The Israeli army said the protesters threw stones and explosive devices toward the Israeli border. It said they also set tires on fire.
Dozens reported wounded
Dozens of ambulances crisscrossed the area near the border fence in anticipation of casualties. Arab media reported that dozens were wounded by gunfire.
Correspondents inside Israel reported that a large number of Israeli tanks were stationed near the border fence.
Hamas-run media in Gaza broadcast a message by the group's leader, Ismail Haniya, urging people to protest to mark the first anniversary of what was originally billed as a "march of return" to territories inside Israel. Hanniya had urged demonstrators to break through the border fence in the run-up to last year's demonstration.
The weekly protests have been staged to demand an end to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, which has been in place since 2007, when the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas became the governing authority in the territory.
The demonstrating Palestinians also want the right to return to the land they fled during the founding of Israel in 1948. Israel opposes the idea.
The protests also fell on what is known as "Land Day" by Arab and Palestinian residents of Israel. Land Day commemorates the deaths in 1976 of six Arab and Palestinian demonstrators who were opposing the Israeli expropriation of Arab and Palestinian lands.
Some 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed in the past year of weekly protests.
An Egyptian delegation reportedly was present in Gaza on Saturday to urge Hamas leaders to avoid any escalation with Israel.
Rocket from Gaza
A flare-up of violence occurred earlier in the week when a rocket fired from inside Gaza hit a residential building in Israel, wounding over half a dozen people. The rocket attack prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond by launching a series of air raids over the territory.
Israeli elections are due to take place in two weeks, prompting fears in some parts of an escalation in violence.
Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo.