2 Gazans nabbed after infiltrating into Israel, sparking panic

Army finds men were carrying grenade and knife; 1 Palestinian said killed, 42 wounded as thousands riot along border in weekly protest, throwing explosives and rocks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli troops respond to an infiltration by two Palestinian men from the northern Gaza Strip on March 8, 2019. (Yediot Mehashetah)
Illustrative: Israeli troops respond to an infiltration by two Palestinian men from the northern Gaza Strip on March 8, 2019. (Yediot Mehashetah)

Two Palestinians, carrying a knife and a hand grenade, infiltrated into Israel from the northern Gaza Strip on Friday afternoon, prompting a large-scale call-up of security personnel in the area before the pair were eventually arrested.

The border breach came amid a period of heightened tensions in the region of the coastal enclave as Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group exchanged fire as well as verbal threats.

While the army initially reported they were unarmed, it later said that searches had turned up a hand grenade and a knife among clothes they had discarded.

Also on Friday afternoon thousands of Palestinians rioted at several sites along the Gaza border, throwing rocks and improvised explosives at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the security fence. The Israeli troops responded to the estimated 8,000 with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire, the military said.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported that at one person was killed and at least 42 Palestinians had been injured by Israeli fire.

Tamer Arafat succumbed to his wounds after being shot in the head, ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

Palestinians climb the border fence with Israel during clashes near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 8, 2019. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The two Gazans who broke through the security fence in the northern Strip evaded capture for approximately half an hour, forcing the Israel Defense Forces to bring additional troops to the area and local communities to go on high alert and call up their volunteer security forces.

“The suspects were arrested after IDF troops closed off the area and searched the area where they’d traveled. The suspects were not armed,” the military said in a statement.

On Friday, Israeli troops along the Gaza Strip prepared for border riots later in the day as part of what Palestinians call the “March of Return,” a series of regular demonstrations along the security fence that have been held since March 30, 2018.

Palestinians say these protests are typically peaceful in nature and call for their right to return to their family homes in Israel and the West Bank (much of Gaza’s population is made up of refugees from the 1948 War of Independence) and for an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the enclave, which the two countries say is necessary to prevent terror groups from easily importing weapons and materiel.

Israel maintains that the demonstrations are orchestrated by Hamas, which vocally supports them, sends free buses to the border and provides food and internet to participants — as well as money for those injured in them — in order to provide a cover for the organization’s nefarious activities along the security fence, including infiltration attempts, the planting of explosives and attacks on Israeli soldiers.

Recent weeks have seen an uptick in violence along the border, with Palestinians launching balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel, causing damage and threatening the safety of Israelis living nearby.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Hamas terror group that Israel would respond harshly to any further violence emanating from the Gaza Strip.

At the Egyptian border, Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, was briefed by army officials and held a discussion with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and other top generals on the situation on the Gaza border, which has seen several flareups over the past week.

Netanyahu said he was “aware that in the last few days Hamas’s aggression is renewing in all sorts of forms.”

“Hamas should understand that any display of aggression will be met with twice as great a response from the Israeli side,” Netanyahu told reporters.

“It is better they understand this now than afterwards,” he added.

Earlier Thursday, an IDF tank shelled a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip after Palestinian gunmen fired on an Israeli military position along the border fence, the army said. No Israeli soldiers were said injured by the gunfire.

Hebrew-language media said the target was an IDF pillbox, which is a concrete structure that offers protection against rifle fire.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh greets supporters during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Palestinian terror group, at the main road in Jebaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, on December 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

There were no reports of casualties in the Israeli strike.

The border region has seen increasingly intense bouts of violence over the last several days, with Israel carrying out airstrikes in response to explosives tied to balloons launched from Gaza.

After Netanyahu’s tour of the Egyptian border region, an explosive device attached to balloons launched from Gaza exploded in an open field in the Eshkol Regional Council in Israel, causing no casualties or damage.

During his tour, Netanyahu also hailed the security fence along the border with Egypt, which he has accused his chief election rival Benny Gantz of opposing when it was built, a charge the retired general has denied.

“This fence is a phenomenal success. It has completely stopped the infiltration of hundreds of thousands from Africa and the entrance to Israel of terrorists from the Sinai,” he said.

The 242 kilometer (250 mile) barrier, stretching from the Gaza Strip to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, was completed in 2014.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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