'It's all up to you...Stay away...Don't approach the fence'

IDF issues clear warning to Gazans as it draws up battle plans for mass protest

Army makes direct appeal to residents of Hamas-run Strip in bid to avoid provoking troops deployed to area into using deadly force to stop feared border breach

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

In this file photo taken on March 30, 2018 Israeli soldiers keep position as they lie prone over an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz as Palestinians demonstrate on the other side commemorating Land Day. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this file photo taken on March 30, 2018 Israeli soldiers keep position as they lie prone over an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz as Palestinians demonstrate on the other side commemorating Land Day. (Jack Guez/AFP)

As the Israeli military prepares for mass Land Day protests planned for the Gaza border on Saturday and for the potential that these demonstrations could spark a bloody conflict in the coastal enclave, it has begun warning Palestinians — on pain of death — not to cross its “red line”: approaching or breaching the security fence.

Through phone calls, messages, public statements and pamphlets dropped from aircraft, the Israel Defense Forces has told Palestinians in the Strip that any attempts to break through the border fence will be met with live fire.

“The IDF will not accept attempts to harm (Israeli) civilians, soldiers or the security fence,” Col. Iyad Sarhan, the Head of the IDF Coordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza, said in an Arabic-language video directed at Gaza residents on Friday, telling them that if they abide by the rules they could end the weekend “safe with your families.”

“It’s all up to you,” Sarhan said.

“I repeat. Keep away from the border and don’t approach the fence, stay at least 300 meters (320 yards) away,” he said. “Israel is determined to protect our citizens and will not tolerate any rocket fire or terrorist acts. Any such violations will draw a harsh response. Save your selves, keep innocents away from points of conflict and from terror instigators in the Strip,” he said.

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.

This year’s Land Day, which marks the 1976 expropriation of Arab land by Israel, 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 Hamas appropriated the campaign for nefarious purposes, using the civilian protesters as cover for violent military activities.

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. Field hospitals have been set up at various points, and medical facilities in the Strip are on an emergency footing.

Palestinians wave Palestinian flags as they try to climb the security fence on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on March 22, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

An Egyptian military intelligence delegation has been working to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas ahead of the Land Day protest — shuttling back and forth between Tel Aviv and Gaza — amid fears that clashes along the border could snowball into a larger conflagration.

Hamas is looking for a victory as after 11 years into its rule over the Gaza Strip, the majority of young people in the Strip — approximately 70 percent — are unemployed, electricity is available for just a few hours per day and potable water is scarce.

Hamas is hoping for Israel and Egypt to lift their blockade of the Strip, which the two countries maintain is necessary to prevent terror groups from importing weapons into the coastal enclave.

Israel wants an end not only to rocket fire but to all violence along the border, including the riots along the security fence and the airborne incendiary and explosive devices that are regularly flown into Israel — while also denying Hamas a victory.

A ball of fire lights the sky above a building believed to house the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas terror group, during Israeli strikes on Gaza City, March 25, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The result of these negotiation efforts will only likely be seen Saturday. If successful, the demonstrations may still be large, but should be comparatively tame. If not, then mayhem and carnage will be the order of the day.

On Friday, the IDF said that Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi toured the region again Friday and “authorized the plans drawn up.”

Hundreds of snipers, from both the IDF and Border Police, will be positioned along the Gaza border in order to ensure that such a mass breach does not occur. The military refuses to provide an exact number, but estimates range from 200 to 300.

The IDF also refuses to publicize the specific rules of engagement that these snipers will abide by — as this information would be useful for terrorists — but generally, the military has said that people protesting at least 300 meters (980 feet) away from the security fence will not be targeted. Those who attempt to breach the fence or damage it can be targeted, along with anyone who presents an immediate threat to the troops serving along the border.

The IDF believes that by shooting individuals before they breach the fence it can prevent these mass infiltrations and the subsequent need to shoot large numbers of people rushing toward Israeli civilians and soldiers and presenting an immediate threat.

These have largely been the Israel’s rules of engagement throughout the past year of regular riots along the border, in which nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed, along with one Israeli soldier, according to a recent United Nations report.

While setting and abiding by firm red lines, the Israeli military will also attempt to avoid large numbers of Palestinian casualties on Saturday, while still preventing border breaches and threats to the Israeli communities nearby. Beyond the moral considerations and potential for international blowback, the more Gazans that are killed and wounded by the IDF, the more terror groups in the Strip will feel they must retaliate with rocket and mortar fire — one of several potential scenarios that could lead to a wider conflict.

To prepare for that, the few hundreds snipers on the fence will be supported by four brigades — normally there are two in this role during border riots — along with tanks, an artillery battalion, fleets of drones and field intelligence units. Additional Border Police units have also been deployed throughout the Israeli communities close to the Gaza border.

Israeli troops take up positions near the Gaza border on March 26, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF says it is preparing for a variety of scenarios on Saturday, including those in which ground forces must enter the Gaza Strip — something that Israel has not done throughout the past year of riots and clashes.

The three most likely scenarios that would lead to a dramatic Israeli retaliation are: shots fired at Israeli soldiers during the protests; a rocket or mortar shell fired at Israel during the march; and a rocket or mortar attack later in the evening in response to large numbers of Palestinian casualties.

Throughout the past year of border riots and sporadic one- or two-day battles, the Israeli military has maintained that neither it nor the Hamas terror group is interested in a large-scale war, and this continues to be the prevailing opinion in the lead-up to Saturday.

However, a breakdown in negotiations, a “mistake” by Hamas or unexpected violence during the Land Day protests could see both sides barreling towards a war that neither wants.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report

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