GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians who tried to breach the Gaza border fence, the military said on Sunday, adding that an axe and a wire cutter were found in their possession.
Soldiers fired tank shells and machine guns at the men, according to a Palestinian medic, Izzat Shatat. He said the men had been close to the border fence, but that he was not sure if they actually crossed into Israel.
The attempted breach came at a time of heightened tension on the Gaza-Israel border, including more than a month of weekly mass protests near the fence. Gaza's Hamas rulers have said the marches would continue until a decade-old blockade of the territory by Israel and Egypt is lifted. More protests are expected on Friday, as well as on May 14 and 15.
On May 14, the United States is to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose Israeli-annexed eastern sector is sought for a Palestinian capital. The move is seen by Palestinians as a U.S. breach of long-standing promises to help negotiate a fair arrangement for the contested city.
On the following day, Palestinians mark the "nakba," or catastrophe, to commemorate the anniversary of their mass uprooting during the 1948 war over Israel's creation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from what is now Israel, and the border protests are also billed as a "Great March of Return."
Since late March, 40 Palestinian protesters were killed and more than 1,700 wounded by Israeli army fire.
Israel has come under international criticism, including from the United Nations and the European Union, for the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. Rights groups say the army's open-fire orders, under which troops are permitted to shoot at those approaching the border fence, are unlawful.
Israel says that it is defending its sovereign border, including nearby communities, and that its troops target only instigators. Israel accuses Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, of trying to carry out attacks under the guise of the mass protests.
In addition to those killed and wounded in the context of the protests, 10 Palestinians were killed since March 30 in other border incidents.
Of those, three were shot dead Sunday.
The Israeli military said four men arrived in the area of the fence "with the intention of infiltrating and conducting a terror attack."
It said troops arrived at the scene and fired shots, killing three of the men. The statement said troops found an axe, a wire cutter, an oxygen mask, gloves and two gas tanks.
The statement was unclear about whether the Palestinians managed to get into Israel. The army spokesman's office, when asked to clarify, said the men did break through and were shot and killed at the fence area.
Earlier Sunday, thousands led by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh joined a Gaza funeral procession for six members of the Hamas military wing who were killed in an explosion a day earlier.
Gaza media initially reported the blast as a "work accident," suggesting the men were killed when explosives they were preparing detonated prematurely.
Hamas later said the six, including two commanders, were killed "dismantling booby-trapped spying equipment planted by Israel during the past decade in Gaza." It did not elaborate or provide any evidence.
Hamas said Israel would "pay a heavy price."
Israel's military declined comment.