IDF gears up for mass Gaza riots, warns that Hamas plans to ‘massacre’ Israelis

Over 100,000 Palestinians expected to take part in ‘March of Return’ protests on Monday; IDF fears hundreds may try to breach border fence, attack nearby Israeli towns

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

Amid black smoke from burning tires, Palestinian protesters run from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Amid black smoke from burning tires, Palestinian protesters run from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

GAZA BORDER — The Israeli military is gearing up for fierce “March of Return” protests along the Gaza security fence on Monday, with more than 100,000 Palestinians expected to take part, and dire warnings from the IDF that hundreds plan to try breach the fence and carry out a “massacre” of Israeli civilians.

The protests are now set for Monday, to coincide with the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and not on Tuesday’s Nakba Day, as was originally expected.

The Israel Defense Forces expects over 100,000 Palestinians to take part in the mass demonstrations and potentially as many as 200,000, something that would indicate a major victory for the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza and has co-opted for its own ends what were originally slated to be weeks of nonviolent protests.

The army’s primary fear during the expected riots is that dozens or hundreds of Palestinians, including Hamas members, will manage to break through the Gaza security fence and wreak havoc in one of the Israeli communities on the other side, attacking residents, starting fires, and destroying buildings.

A Palestinian protester holds wire cutters after burning tires near the fence during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The military believes Hamas will focus its energies on this style of mass, chaotic attack, but the IDF is also preparing for more direct armed combat, including attacks on troops along the border, or kidnappings of IDF soldiers, as has happened along the Gaza border in years past.

On Sunday night, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit released a dramatic video saying Hamas seeks to destroy homes, torch farmland and massacre “innocent men, women, and children.”

Screenshot from IDF video issued on May 13, 2018 (IDF video)

“On Monday May 14th, the Hamas terrorist organization plans to send armed terrorists, among 250,000 violent rioters to swarm and breach Israel’s border with Gaza and enter Israeli communities,” warned the English language video.

“Hamas plans to carry out a massacre in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces will not let them.”

Screenshot from IDF video issued on May 13, 2018 (IDF video)

The accompanying footage showed a young girl playing with a dollhouse, which cut to an image from the bloodstained aftermath of a terror attack in the West Bank from 2016, in which a 12-year-old Israeli girl was stabbed to death in her bedroom.

Israel’s Channel 10 news showed clips from what it said were new Hamas videos in which young Gazans were urged into battle against Israel: “Youngsters of the Palestinian revolt… Jerusalem is waiting for your revolution. So show it your firm determination in battle,” one clip urged.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh traveled to Cairo on Sunday, ahead of the protests, to meet with Egyptian intelligence officers, who were expected to call on him to keep the demonstrations from getting out of control.

The IDF, however, is not relying on Egypt’s persuasive powers and has dispatched two additional brigades to take positions along the Gaza border ahead of the anticipated riots. A third brigade was also deployed to the West Bank, the army said.

“The IDF’s preparation includes the additional deployment of a number of combat battalions to the Gaza border, special forces, intelligence collection units, and snipers. In addition, the Central Command will also receive additional combat battalions and intelligence collection teams as reinforcement,” the army said on Sunday.

IDF soldiers on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip, as thousands of Palestinians demonstrate near the border fence, April 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The military also halted all exercises for conscripted soldiers, in order to focus on “handling violent riots,” the army said.

Additional soldiers have also been deployed to provide extra security to Israeli communities near the Gaza border.

Military Intelligence does not believe that Hamas is currently interested in war, but expects that the coming days may see significant violence at the Gaza border.

According to Israeli military assessments, Hamas is in dire straits, facing the most significant pressure since seizing control of Gaza over a decade ago. The terror organization sees the “March of Return” riots as a way to buy time.

The riots thus far have stopped short of a full-fledged war, which would likely result in Hamas getting pummeled by the IDF, but have served to direct away from Hamas the anger and frustrations felt by Gazans, who suffer from one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and lack regular access to electricity and clean drinking water.

“They are putting pressure on their people and ‘exporting’ that pressure toward Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the international community,” a senior official in Israel’s military liaison unit to the Palestinians told reporters on Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A picture of Paris with a caption reading, ‘Gaza 2025? The choice is yours,’ which was dropped on the Gaza Strip by Israel to convince Palestinians to not take part in planned protests along the security fence on May 13, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Ahead of the protests, the army will call on Palestinians not to take part in the demonstrations, through social media posts in Arabic and by dropping pamphlets along the border, including one with a picture of Paris’s Champs-Élysées, with the caption, “Gaza 2025? The choice is yours.”

On Sunday, the military released video footage showing Hamas removing its positions along the border, which the army believes is meant to signal that the rioters will not be restrained by the ruling terror group.

At least one of the communities closest to the border, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which lies less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from Gaza, is considering evacuating residents ahead of the riots as a safety precaution, according to its spokesperson Yael Raz-Lahiani.

A picture taken from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows Palestinians rioting along the border fence on April 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

As of Sunday night, however, residents of the Gaza periphery were not being issued with any special instructions by the Israeli authorities. They were encouraged to adhere to any forthcoming orders from the military.

The past seven Fridays have seen between 5,000 and 40,000 Gazans taking part in the “March of Return,” beginning on March 30 with Land Day, marking the expropriation of Arab land by the Israeli government in 1976 and ensuing protests in which six people were killed, and ending on May 15 with Nakba Day, which commemorates the displacement of Palestinians from their homes amid the creation of the State of Israel.

During these violent protests, Palestinians hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at IDF troops, roll burning tires at the security fence or try to pull it down with chains. Increasingly, demonstrators have been flying kites laden with containers of burning fuel to start fires in Israel.

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip, east of Gaza City, on May 11, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The “March of Return” gets its name from the “right of return” demanded by millions of Palestinians to go back to their ancestral villages, something no Israeli government would accept, as it would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

According to the Hamas health ministry, around 50 Palestinians have been killed since protests and clashes began along the Gaza border on March 30, and hundreds of others have been wounded from gunfire. Hamas acknowledged that five of its terrorists were among the fatalities after the first Friday demonstration, but has since refrained from acknowledging whether its men are among the dead. Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups. Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, damage to the fence, and attacks.

Initially, the IDF believed that these protests would reach their peak with Nakba Day on May 15, but Military Intelligence assessments now indicate that Hamas will seek to “piggyback” on the spectacle of Monday’s US Embassy move in order to draw international attention to their cause.

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans as he is surrounded by protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Friday, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The officer from the Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories unit said Sunday that Hamas has recently taken steps to increase the stress on Gaza residents, most recently by barring Gaza fisherman from working beginning on Monday.

But more dramatically, during the latest border protests on Friday, the COGAT officer said Hamas members directed rioters to destroy and set fire to key parts of the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the main, often sole, passage for commercial goods and humanitarian aid into and out of the Gaza Strip. Gas lines were trashed and tens of millions of shekels of damage was caused.

“And now, me and my commanders are breaking our heads trying to figure out how to get medicine into Gaza,” the officer said.

They succeeded, sending six trucks worth of medical supplies into Gaza on Sunday.

Workers load medical supplies onto a truck bound for the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom Crossing on May 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Also Sunday, Israel announced it was keeping the crossing closed while it assessed the damage and determined the best and safest way to reopen it.

“Israel didn’t make this decision in order to punish anyone, there’s just no other way,” the COGAT official said.

The officer said Israel believed that Hamas ordered the destruction of the site, as the IDF saw people running back and forth between Hamas positions and the Kerem Shalom Crossing, apparently getting directions on what to attack.

“We could see people wearing civilian clothes, but holding walkie talkies and giving orders — what to do, where to go,” he said.

The previous week, which also saw rioters enter and cause damage at the crossing, had no such coordination and appeared to be spontaneous, the officer said.

The rioters on Friday set fire to the sole pipelines for gasoline and diesel fuel into the coastal enclave, a conveyor belt for building materials and conveyor belts used to bring some 2000 tons of animal feed into Gaza each day.

On Sunday, the smell of diesel fuel still hung in the air around the crossing.

The fuel lines will take weeks to repair, according to assessments by Israeli and Palestinian engineers. There is no alternative for the pipelines. For now, fuel can only be brought into Gaza from Egypt’s generally closed Rafah Crossing, which was opened following Friday’s ransacking.

Gas pipes on fire at the Kerem Shalom goods crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The conveyor belts may take longer to fix, but there are potential workarounds in the meantime, the COGAT official said.

Around 15,000 Palestinians took part in protests along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel on Friday.

Protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers at five major points along the border. Troops were attacked with pipe bombs, grenades, rocks and burning tires, and rioters also attempted to sabotage “security infrastructure,” the army said.

Several flaming kites were flown over the fence by demonstrators, sparking blazes in Israeli territory.

The army said it used live fire in several incidents against violent demonstrators.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said a 40-year-old man was killed after being shot in the chest east of Khan Younis, in the south of the Strip. The ministry said 146 people were injured by live fire — at least eight seriously, and another several dozen moderately and several dozen lightly.

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