Palestinian officials say at least 15 people have been killed by Israeli forces and hundreds more wounded during protests at the Gaza-Israeli border.
Thousands had marched to the border at the start of a six-week protest, dubbed the Great March of Return.
The Israeli military said “rioting” had broken out at various places along the border and soldiers had opened fire “towards main instigators”.
Later, Israel said it had targeted sites of the Hamas militant group.
Palestinians have pitched five camps near the border for the protest. They are demanding that refugees be allowed to return to homes that are now in Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said there were about 17,000 Palestinians in five locations near the border fence. It said it had “enforced a closed military zone” in the area surrounding Gaza.
Although most protesters stayed in the encampments, some groups of youths ignored organisers’ calls to stay away from the fence and headed closer to Israeli positions.
The IDF said troops were “firing towards the main instigators” to break up rioting that included petrol bombs and stones being thrown at the fence.
A spokesman said all those who were killed had been trying to breach or damage the border fence, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Israel had deployed tanks and snipers. Witnesses said a drone had been used in at least one location to drop tear gas.
The death toll from Friday’s rally is the largest since the last Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014. Since then Gaza has seen a long period of calm, but difficult economic conditions and the Israeli blockade may be the final chapter in the four-year truce between Hamas and Israel.
Despite the call for peaceful demonstrations, the confrontations involving angry Palestinian youths were not surprising. Young men have been demonstrating near the border with Israel on numerous occasions, but this time Israel’s response was exaggerated.
Tomorrow, the Palestinians will bury their dead and head back to the border with Israel to throw stones at the soldiers. The important question that remains is to what extent will peaceful demonstrations succeed in stopping an impending war, or will the protests lead to military escalation?
Hamas, the militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, but last year said it was ready to accept an interim Palestinian state limited to Gaza and the West Bank.
Addressing protesters on Friday, Hamas senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh said “we will not concede a single inch of the land of Palestine”.
He said: “There is no alternative to Palestine and no solution except to return.”
Palestinian health officials said at least 400 people had been wounded by live ammunition. It said one of those killed was a 16-year-old boy.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Saturday a national day of mourning and blamed Israel for the violence.
The UN Security Council is due to discuss the situation, diplomats said on Friday.
The Israeli military oversees a no-go zone along the Gaza border, citing security concerns, and has doubled its troop presence for the protest. It fears the protest could be an attempt at a mass breach of the border.
Map showing the position of the five protest camps. Source: Haaretz The Israeli foreign ministry has said the protest is a “deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation with Israel” and that “responsibility for any clashes lies solely with Hamas and other participating Palestinian organisations”.
The IDF later tweeted that it had “thwarted an attempted shooting attack by a terror cell in the Northern Gaza Strip”.
It said two “terrorists” had approached the border fence and fired towards Israeli troops. The IDF said it targeted them “as well as three nearby terror sites belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation with tank fire and IAF fighter jets”.