Gaza protest leaders to urge calm on border amid ceasefire efforts

Egyptian delegation to attend weekly border demonstrations after organizers say they will tell protesters to refrain from violence; Islamic Jihad threatens cryptic ‘new tactic’

Illustrative: Protesters wave Palestinian flags while riding a truck full with tires near the fence of the Gaza Strip border with Israel during a protest east of Gaza City, Friday, October 26, 2018. (AP/Adel Hana)
Illustrative: Protesters wave Palestinian flags while riding a truck full with tires near the fence of the Gaza Strip border with Israel during a protest east of Gaza City, Friday, October 26, 2018. (AP/Adel Hana)

Gaza protest leaders are calling for calmer border demonstrations Friday to give a chance to efforts to reach a long-term truce with Israel after months of deadly unrest, a source in the organizing committee said.

Previous such hopes for a deal have been dashed since protests and clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip began on March 30 and tensions in the region remain high.

It was not clear if demonstrators would heed calls for calm.

“Friday’s events will be quiet,” an official from the committee in charge of organizing the marches told AFP Thursday, on condition of anonymity.

Egypt and UN officials have been engaged in indirect talks between Hamas, the Islamist terror group that runs the Gaza Strip, and Israel.

An Egyptian delegation was in Gaza on Thursday for further discussions, meeting with leaders of different factions.

A Palestinian uses a slingshot to hurl stones during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 29, 2018. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The protest organizing committee is technically independent from Hamas, but includes representatives allied to it, as well as the Islamic Jihad terror group.

Israel has accused Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, of leading the protests and using them as cover to carry out attacks against troops stationed the border

The unnamed Gazan official said the agreement to calm the border Friday “will give an opportunity for the success of the Egyptian efforts to (achieve) calm and lift the siege.”

Protests would still go ahead, he said, but demonstrators would be encouraged not to approach the fence too closely, burn tires or send balloons equipped with incendiary devices across the border.

Palestinian paramedics carry away a man who was injured during clashes near the border with Israel east of Gaza City on October 26, 2018. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Since often violent protests began on March 30, over 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during protests and clashes along the border, including a number of people who broke through the fence into Israel. Dozens of the fatalities were Hamas members.

One Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian sniper.

In a statement after a meeting of their leaders in Gaza on Thursday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad said the marches would continue, albeit without violence.

Both groups praised Egyptian and UN efforts to broker a deal.

Palestinian protestors place their national flag on a metal structure during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 8, 2018. ( Said KHATIB / AFP)

A separate statement by the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad group carried by Israeli media threatened that it would use a “new tactic,” along the border, without providing details.

After the meeting, a member of the organizing committee said the Egyptian delegation would attend Friday’s protests.

“The Egyptian security delegation will visit one of return march sites tomorrow,” Maher Mazhar told journalists.

He did not give further details, but it would be the first publicly announced visit to the protests by an Egyptian official.

A leader of the Islamic Jihad told the Israeli Haaretz daily that the Egyptians had agreed to work to curb any Israeli response to the protests over the next three weeks. The unnamed official said the protests could be called off after that period if Israel keeps to its commitment to ease a blockade on the Strip.

There was no comment from Egyptian officials.

An Israeli tank takes a position at the Gaza Strip border, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Recent weeks have seen efforts by the UN and Egypt result in Qatari-funded fuel deliveries for Gaza, easing a severe electricity shortage.

There have also reportedly been talks with a view to Israel allowing Qatari cash into the Gaza Strip to pay public salaries.

But last week, hopes for a deal were set back by further border violence.

Seven Palestinians died in renewed clashes along the border last Friday.

An explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, on October 27, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Hours later, Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets at Israel, which responded with extensive air strikes. The Israeli military said the rocket fire came at the behest of Syria and Iran.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups from importing arms or materials to build up military infrastructure, such as cross-border tunnels.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has regularly closed border crossings in response to flare-ups of violence, which have typically come during the weekends, when border protests are largest.

However, military officials have reportedly pushed to keep the crossings open as a means of easing a dire humanitarian crisis in the Strip and lowering tensions.

Weather ripe for fires

Friday is expected to see unseasonably hot and dry weather, along with high winds, leading to fears that incendiary balloons launched by Gazans could set quickly spreading wildfires.

Gazans have launched hundreds of kites and balloons into Israel over the past several months, scorching thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves.

An Israeli policeman watches a fire started by a balloon with attached burning cloth launched by Palestinians from Gaza Strip in Karmia nature reserve park near Israel and Gaza border, Thursday, October 11, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

On Thursday, a fire started by a suspected balloon from Gaza burned some 50 acres near Kibbutz Gvaram before firefighters managed to put it out.

An official in Haifa told the Walla news site that weather conditions expected over the weekend were similar to those in November 2016, when a rash of wildfires across the country burned hundreds homes and led to mass evacuations in the bay city.

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