On both sides of the Gaza security fence, preparations were underway Thursday for mass protests planned for a day later, with Israelis and Palestinians getting ready for clashes — and working quietly to prevent a repeat of the deadly chaos from a week earlier that seems an all-but foregone conclusion.
Palestinians have called for a fresh round of demonstrations for Friday, following a massive protest a week ago in which more than 30,000 people took part. Since then the border has mostly calmed, although there have been small daily demonstrations and border clashes, including what the Israel Defense Forces said was an attempt by the Hamas terror group’s military wing to send an armed fighter into Israeli territory early Thursday morning, which was prevented with an Israeli airstrike.
Despite calls for calm, storm clouds are looming, and threatening to turn into deadly toxic plumes.
Israel says it will respond with the same force it did last week, despite criticism over the use of live fire, and has warned it may expand its response beyond the border if need be. On the other side of the fence, Gazans have geared up for more demonstrations and massive tire fires, and Hamas leaders have threatened more severe riots that may not stop at the border.
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, in total, at least 20 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during clashes starting last Friday. The majority of them were identified as members of terrorist groups, either by the organizations themselves or by the Israeli military. Nearly 1,500 people were also reportedly injured.
On Monday, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said the army used “precision fire” and only shot live rounds at those who threatened soldiers or the security fence. He also accused the Hamas-run health ministry of dramatically inflating the number of people it said were hit by live rounds.
Israel maintains that these protests are not spontaneous and civilian-led, as Palestinians say, but are orchestrated entirely by the Hamas terrorist organization, which rules Gaza.
Manelis said the army was prepared to target terrorist positions deep inside the Gaza Strip if Hamas continues its violent activities on the border.
The spokesperson said in another briefing Thursday that the terrorist group has called on all its members and their families to participate and that Israel has evidence of Hamas forcing bus companies to transport people to the protest. He also noted that Hamas has begun offering payments of $200 to $500 to anyone who is wounded, and $3,000 to the families of those who are killed during the demonstrations.
Defense analysts believe this is part of a new tactic in Hamas’s fight against the Jewish state, since its rockets and tunnels are being countered by the Iron Dome missile defense system and a new subterranean barrier, respectively.
“Hamas is trying to turn [the border area] into a combat zone. Hamas is using [protesters] as human shields,” Manelis told reporters in a phone briefing on Thursday.
“Hamas is playing with fire,” he added.
The army official said Hamas and other terror groups have tried to carry out attacks under the cover of the protests, noting that the majority of the fatalities were later identified as members of these organizations.
“That’s not a coincidence,” Manelis said.
The spokesperson said that thus far there have been multiple attempts to plant improvised explosive devices along the border, as well as attempts by armed terrorists to breach it.
But the main threat that the army was preparing for was a large-scale march on the border and infiltration into Israeli territory.
“Our mission is to stop terror attacks, to prevent damage to the security fence, and to fend off violations of Israeli sovereignty,” the spokesperson said.
On Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh hinted that he might seek to have Gazans do just that.
“On Friday we stopped at the border. Next time we don’t know what the limit will be,” he said.
On Monday, Manelis told reporters that such a mass invasion would be a “catastrophe” and that preventing it was the army’s primary concern, noting the short distance between Israeli communities and the security fence — less than a kilometer, in some cases.
Former senior Israeli officials have cast doubts on the army’s ability to stop hundreds of thousands of Palestinians marching into Israeli territory.
“With small numbers, say a few thousand, you can catch them, hold them, feed them, give them flowers and send them home. If there are tens of thousands or more, I have no good answer. I don’t know of methods of crowd dispersal that would be useful and effective in such circumstances,” former IDF general and national security adviser Giora Eiland told The Times of Israel earlier this week.
Behind the scenes this week, Egypt was reportedly in talks with both Israeli and Palestinian officials in attempts to maintain calm and keep violent clashes to a minimum. Hamas itself called on its members to “avoid friction” with IDF troops, though it was unclear to what extent the group truly planned on trying to keep the border area free of fighting.
There have also been calls from the international community for the two sides to prevent violence.
“Israeli forces should exercise maximum restraint, and Palestinians should avoid friction at the Gaza fence,” Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said in a statement on Friday.
Neither side seemed willing to abide by these calls for calm.
Ahead of Friday’s protests, Palestinians in Gaza collected thousands of tires that they plan to set alight on Friday to act as a smoke screen. They said this is meant to protect protesters from Israeli snipers, but Manelis said the military believes it will be used to provide cover for terrorists to carry out attacks. Israeli officials have decried their plan as a potentially grave environmental hazard.
Gazans also collected mirrors that they planned to use to blind the Israeli sharpshooters — Friday’s forecast calls for sunny skies — and bulldozers constructed earthen berms to give demonstrators additional cover.
On the other side of the fence, the Israel Defense Forces was preparing for the planned protests in much the same way as last week, focusing especially on preventing a mass infiltration.
“We will use the same forces and the same capabilities,” said Manelis on Monday.
In general, the army planned to use mostly less-lethal riot dispersal means — tear gas and rubber bullets — but will also use live fire in cases where there was a direct threat to the soldiers or attempts to damage the security fence. However, a handful of videos from last week showed cases in which Palestinians were shot despite not appearing to be actively involved in hostilities at the time. The IDF has accused Hamas of fabricating or faking videos.
The spokesperson would not comment on any specific changes to the army’s rules of engagement for Friday’s protests.
But Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman indicated that they would be similar to those used last week, which allowed soldiers to target people throwing rocks and firebombs at soldiers across the border or attempting to damage the security fence.
“We have set clear rules of the game and we do not intend to change them. Anyone who approaches the fence risks his life,” Liberman said.
On Tuesday, the Walla news site reported that the army’s rules of engagement for soldiers would allow the use of live fire against someone with a weapon who gets within approximately 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the security fence. An unarmed person would be allowed within 100 meters (330 feet) of the border before soldiers opened fire.
The left-wing B’Tselem human rights groups launched a campaign on Wednesday calling on soldiers to refuse orders and not fire on protesters that aren’t holding firearms or explosive devices. This is in opposition to army protocols, which also define people with Molotov cocktails and rocks, along with protesters damaging or breaching the security fence, as legitimate targets.
Israel was criticized for its use of lethal force during last Friday’s protests, with European countries calling for the IDF to show restraint. Last Saturday, the United States blocked a draft UN Security Council statement urging restraint and calling for an investigation of clashes on the Gaza-Israel border.
The army’s actions during last Friday’s protests also drew criticism within Israel.
The head of the left-wing Meretz Party called for an investigation of the IDF’s conduct, saying it was “trigger happy.”
Eiland, the former general, said that while the army has an obligation to defend Israel’s borders, it could have refrained from using live rounds to the extent that it did.
“My impression is that we, to a certain extent, may have been too quick to fire at a demonstration that I’m not sure endangered our soldiers and that I’m not sure would have trampled the fence and seen masses getting into Israel,” he said.