For second week, Gaza ‘March of Return’ border protests called off

Israel-based analyst says decision apparently aimed at preventing fresh escalation of violence and out of fear crowds could turn against Hamas terror group

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinians gather near the border with Israel in Malaka east of Gaza City on March 30, 2019, as Palestinians mark the first anniversary of the "March of Return" border protests. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Palestinians gather near the border with Israel in Malaka east of Gaza City on March 30, 2019, as Palestinians mark the first anniversary of the "March of Return" border protests. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The weekly “March of Return” protests along the Gaza Strip border have been called off for the second week in a row, organizers said Tuesday, in a move seen as marking further attempts by Gaza’s Hamas rulers to avoid fresh confrontation with Israel.

Last Wednesday, in the wake of the 48-hour flare-up between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the protests were canceled for only the third time since they started in late March 2018.

The High National Commission for the March of Return and Breaking the Siege, which includes representatives of Gaza-based terror groups and political factions, said the protest was canceled this week to allow “the Palestinian people to continue to provide assistance to family members of martyrs and wounded persons and those whose homes were damaged in the Israeli aggression.”

The fighting last week started after the Israel Defense Forces killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a top commander in the Islamic Jihad terror group.

During the escalation in tensions, the Al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, fired some 450 rockets and mortars at Israel, which responded with many retaliatory strikes in Gaza.

The Hamas terror group’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which unlike in previous rounds of fighting, was widely believed to have stayed on the sidelines.

Three Israelis were wounded by rocket fire during the fighting and dozens were injured when they fell while running to bomb shelters.

Thirty-four Palestinians in Gaza were killed in the confrontation and 109 were injured, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. At least 19 of them were members of terror groups and several were civilians, including eight minors.

Last week, the High National Commission said it called off the demonstration “in light of the continuation of the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip.”

Palestinian demonstrators run away from the fence during protests along the border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on July 12, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Neri Zilber, an Israel-based journalist and a senior fellow at BICOM, a UK think tank, said it was not surprising that the committee charged with organizing the protests canceled Friday’s demonstration.

“Hamas did not want an escalation last week and they do not want an escalation this week either,” he said in a phone call. “Islamic Jihad has publicly made it clear that no deaths on the border is part of what it understands the ceasefire to be. So Hamas is concerned about that.”

Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhala told the pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen station last Wednesday that one of the terror group’s conditions for a ceasefire was Israel halting the use of fire against protesters in the border region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, asserted on Sunday that Israel did not make any promises in exchange for the ceasefire.

Zilber also said that Hamas probably does not want large groups of people gathering in Gaza at the current moment due to fears they could start protesting against the terror group.

“Hamas authorities are likely concerned that if lots of people congregate near the border, they could direct their ire at them for not participating in the last round of fighting with Israel,” he said.

Last Thursday, following the announcement of the ceasefire, dozens of Palestinians in Gaza marched through at least two locations in the coastal enclave, calling on terror groups in the coastal enclave to continue firing rockets at Israel.

Since March 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in the protests along the frontier on most Fridays, 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 frequent rioting with rocks, explosives and fire bombs hurled at IDF soldiers who respond with tear gas and live fire. At least 200 Palestinians have been killed, according to the health ministry.

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 that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

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