Gaza health officials said Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man near the perimeter fence with Israel early Saturday, hours before a planned mass rally to mark the annual Palestinian Land Day and the one-year anniversary of the start of weekly March of Return border protests. Gaza sources said he was a member of a group that has repeatedly burned tires and detonated explosives at the fence. Israel said there were riots at the border at the time.
The fatal shooting raised tensions at a time when Egyptian mediators, shuttling between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, are trying to broker a cease-fire deal that reportedly also includes proposed arrangements for preventing violence during Saturday’s protest.
Early Saturday, Mohammed Saad, 21, was killed by Israeli army fire east of Gaza City near the perimeter fence, Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said, adding he was hit by shrapnel in the head.
A Gaza hospital worker, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said Saad was a member of the so-called “night disturbance unit.” Such groups routinely burn tires, flash laser lights and detonate explosives near the fence at night to distract soldiers and disturb residents of nearby Israeli communities.
Witnesses said Saad had been taking part in an overnight demonstration when he was hit.
An Israeli army spokesman said about 200 Palestinians “rioted during the night along the fence” and that the army used riot dispersal means against them. There was no further elaboration or comment on Saad’s case.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza announced Saturday morning that it had completed preparations for the planned protests, with hospitals and ambulances on stand-by ahead of the demonstrations. Field hospitals have been set up at various points, and medical facilities in the Strip are on an emergency footing.
Meanwhile, Israel has been warning Palestinians against approaching or breaching the security fence during Saturday’s border protest. Through phone calls, messages, public statements and pamphlets dropped from aircraft, the IDF has told Palestinians in the Strip that any attempts to break through the border fence will be met with live fire.
The IDF’s Arabic-language spokesman on Saturday appealed directly to Gazans, saying benefits could be in store if they refrain from violence.
“According to Palestinian reports, if you don’t act violently or with terror today, significant measures will be implemented that can improve a variety of civilian fields in the Gaza Strip,” Avichay Adraee wrote on Facebook.
The Israeli military’s primary concern in these March of Return protests is that large groups of people will break through the fence, armed with guns, grenades and knives, and either enter one of the Israeli communities located a few hundred meters from the border and attack those inside, or kidnap soldiers stationed along the security fence.
Palestinian Land Day marks a 1976 decision by the Israeli government to seize thousands of dunams (acres) of Arab-owned land in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
This year’s Land Day also marks a year since the start of weekly violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border, known as the “March of Return,” which at times have escalated into full-blown exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the coastal enclave, most recently earlier this week.
Israel maintains that the Hamas terror group appropriated the campaign for nefarious purposes, using the civilian protesters as cover for violent military activities. Demonstrations are expected to peak on Saturday afternoon, with tens of thousands potentially taking part.
The timing of the anniversary rally is sensitive for both sides.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of ex-army chiefs who have criticized what they say is his failed Gaza policy. He is also coming under attack over his policies from members of his coalition, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has repeatedly called for wider military action in the enclave.
Hamas, meanwhile, faces growing unrest in Gaza, as a result of worsening humanitarian conditions.
Late Friday night, Hamas officials announced that a deal had been reached that would see the protesters refrain from approaching the border fence, in exchange for Israeli concessions.
But there was no confirmation from Israel and it was unclear to what extent Hamas can control the protesters.
While demonstrations have taken place at least weekly since March last year, Hamas has been building up the anniversary protests for several months.
According to reports, Hamas is planning a mass transportation operation for Saturday, picking up protesters from 38 locations in the enclave and shuttling them to five sites along the border.
The group’s leader Ismail Haniya has called for a million people to gather across five protest sites, and mosques in Gaza late Friday used loudspeakers to encourage a mass turnout.
Egypt has repeatedly tried to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, stepping up efforts in recent days after a Gaza rocket struck a house in central Israel earlier this week, injuring seven Israelis and threatening renewed escalation.
Palestinians with knowledge of the talks have said that as part of the proposed deal, Gaza protesters were to keep away from the fence Saturday and Israeli troops were to hold their fire.
Under the Egyptian plan, Israel was to offer economic incentives for Gaza in exchange for calm, according to Palestinian officials.
On Saturday morning, Israeli troops arrested two Palestinian minors armed with knives attempting to breach the Gaza border fence, according to Ynet news site. The teens were questioned and returned to the Strip.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.