GAZA — A nervous frisson ran through the crowd as it pushed toward the fence between Gaza and Israel on Sunday evening, halting 75 feet from the wire.
I had traveled to Gaza from Cairo ahead of what are expected to be enormous demonstrations at the border fence this week. I wanted to first see the site of the protests on what I thought would be an uneventful evening.
It did not turn out that way.
As clusters of Gazans milled about, Israeli snipers watched from the other side, barely visible in their fortified perches.
I watched as a group of young Palestinian women stepped forward, in dark cloaks and colorful sneakers, gesticulating wildly. “This is our land, not yours!” yelled one.
Then, suddenly, two bullets slammed into the ground in front of them, kicking up puffs of dust. The crowd jolted and the women retreated about 15 feet. But minutes later they were moving forward again, taunting the soldiers.
Another shot rang out — and this time, one of the women fell to the ground, clutching her stomach.
An ambulance raced along the bumpy ground, and emergency workers scooped the woman up and raced off, trailed by crying women. My colleague and I gave three of them a lift to the hospital. They did not seem sure who the woman was, only that she had been standing alongside them.
They scolded themselves for getting too close. They cursed the Israeli soldiers. They prayed that the woman would survive.
At the Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, the young women raced through the corridors, looking for the wounded woman. “Please, just show me her face,” one pleaded to a police officer outside an operating room.
At least 49 Palestinians have been shot dead and thousands have been wounded along the fence since protests erupted on March 30. No Israelis have been injured.
Israeli officials point to the tactics employed by the protesters, including rolling burning tires or sending kites rigged with homemade firebombs toward Israel, to justify their use of deadly force. The demonstrators say they want to escape the prisonlike conditions in Gaza and intend to breach the fence, whatever it takes.
The confrontations appeared likely to reach a climax on Monday, when the United States is scheduled to move its embassy to Jerusalem, and on Tuesday, when Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel.
On Sunday, young men piled tires high at protest camps along the fence, or huddled in tents where they showed off their skills in making kite-bombs, crude devices designed to destroy crops, they said.
In one district east of Gaza City, young men donned black and white shirts that resembled those worn by prisoners in concentration camps, a publicity stunt intended to liken the Israelis to Nazis. Supporters of Islamic Jihad, a militant group backed by Iran, put on a musical show.
And, up near the fence, firing erupted as women moved to the front of the protest.
I finally learned the wounded woman’s name — Alaa Asawafiri — when I found her mother in a hospital corridor, her cheeks smeared with tears, clutching her daughter’s silver sneakers in a plastic bag.
Ms. Asawafiri, 26, was born with a mental disability, said her brother, Mohammed. She learned embroidery at a school for people with disabilities. Her work led her to the protest: she wanted to show off the embroidered bags and cellphone covers she had made.
Her brother did not know how she ended up at the front of the crowd. In any event, she was not behaving in a violent or menacing way, he said. “She wasn’t holding a stone,” he said. “So what’s the excuse for shooting her?”
A spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry initially said that Ms. Asawafiri had been killed. But he later corrected that statement, saying that she had survived but was in critical condition.
The New York Times supplied the time and location of the episode to Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. In a text message, he said he could not find any trace of the shooting.
“We have now checked and crosschecked,” he said. “So far, no information that adds clarity to your question. We will continue to inquire.”
Follow Declan Walsh on Twitter: @declanwalsh.
Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.