Despite tensions, Nakba Day protests in Gaza pass without major incident
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Despite tensions, Nakba Day protests in Gaza pass without major incident

10,000 Palestinians demonstrate along security fence but the IDF, with a stricter open-fire policy, and Hamas, patrolling the border, largely keep the peace

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • An Israeli soldier fires a tear gas canister at rioters east of the Gaza city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
    An Israeli soldier fires a tear gas canister at rioters east of the Gaza city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
  • Palestinian protestors riot along the security fence east of Gaza City as smoke billows from fields across the fence  caused by an incendiary device attached to a kite and flown across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip, on May 15, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    Palestinian protestors riot along the security fence east of Gaza City as smoke billows from fields across the fence caused by an incendiary device attached to a kite and flown across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip, on May 15, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
    Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
  • Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
    Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
  • A Palestinian rioter uses a slingshot to hurl a rock at Israeli troops during Nakba Day protests east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Thomas COEX / AFP)
    A Palestinian rioter uses a slingshot to hurl a rock at Israeli troops during Nakba Day protests east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Thomas COEX / AFP)
  • Palestinian rioters throw back Israeli tear gas canisters during clashes with Israeli forces during Nakba Day protests east of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Thomas COEX / AFP)
    Palestinian rioters throw back Israeli tear gas canisters during clashes with Israeli forces during Nakba Day protests east of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Thomas COEX / AFP)
  • Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
    Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

GAZA BORDER — Some 10,000 Palestinians demonstrated along the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, with rioters burning tires, throwing rocks, setting off explosives and sending balloon-borne incendiary devices into southern Israel, starting at least nine fires.

Israel responded with various riot-dispersal measures. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, some 65 Palestinians were wounded to varying degrees along the border throughout the day, one of them seriously.

While these are sizeable figures in real terms, they represent a substantially tamer Nakba Day than the previous year’s protests along the Gaza border, in which 62 Palestinians were killed, 53 of whom were later claimed as members of terror groups, including eight who died in a gun battle with IDF troops.

The 2018 protests, which took place a day before Nakba Day to coincide with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, saw far greater levels of violence overall and over four times as many participants.

Wednesday’s demonstrations along the Gaza border began around noon and reached their peak three hours later. By 4 p.m. the Israel Defense Forces said its soldiers noted that Palestinians had already begun leaving the border zone — far earlier than expected — and by 7:30 p.m. the protests had ended entirely.

The air along the border stung with tear gas throughout the afternoon, as winds blew the caustic vapors used by the IDF back into Israel, forcing the very soldiers firing the canisters to wear gas masks and other gear to protect against them.

Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Besides tear gas, the coastal currents also carried balloons laden with incendiary devices into southern Israel, causing at least nine fires in farmlands and wooded areas near the Gaza border, some of which sent up massive plumes of smoke that could be seen from kilometers away.

Throughout the afternoon, army officers on the frontier expressed cautious optimism that the day would pass without any significant incidents — no shots fired at Israeli troops, limited Palestinian casualties.

To that end, the Israeli military issued stricter-than-usual rules of engagement, requiring soldiers to receive permission from more senior officers before they could use live fire.

On the Palestinian side, the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group deployed security officers along the border, keeping demonstrators from getting too close to the security fence. Indeed, some of the 65 reported Palestinian injuries were said to have been caused by Hamas forces.

Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Israel Defense Forces had expected the day to be comparatively calm, saying earlier this month that it believed an unofficial ceasefire agreement between Jerusalem and terror groups in the Gaza Strip would hold at least through this week, though a longer-term truce would require more significant policy changes by the government.

Wednesday’s protests commemorated the 71st anniversary of what the Arab world calls the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” surrounding the establishment of Israel, referring to the displacement and dispossession that Palestinians experienced during the Jewish state’s War of Independence in 1948-1949.

This year’s demonstrations came 10 days after a massive flareup between Israel and the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups in the Gaza Strip in which terrorists fired nearly 700 rockets, mortar shells and anti-tank guided missiles at southern and central Israel, killing four people. The IDF struck back, hitting over 300 Hamas and PIJ targets, including several rocket-launching teams. Twenty-five Palestinians were killed in the fighting, most of them members of terror groups.

After two days of fighting, Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement — one that Israel has not officially acknowledged, but has kept — under which Jerusalem agreed to a number of economic and humanitarian concessions in exchange for calm in the Gaza Strip.

An Israeli farmer extinguishes flames in a burning field next to Kibbutz Beeri caused by an incendiary device attached to a kite and flown across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Since March 30, 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in regular protests along the border, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state. The protests have included many acts of violence against Israeli security forces, and have seen at least 200 Palestinians killed.

Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

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