IDF readies for massive weekend protests along Gaza Border

Three additional infantry brigades deployed to area, along with artillery battalion and reservists from air defense and other units

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

Israeli soldiers sit on top of mobile artillery near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, March 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli soldiers sit on top of mobile artillery near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, March 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The Israeli military said Thursday it is readying for protests along the Gaza border planned for Saturday, Palestinians’ Land Day, and a possible outbreak of violence.

The date 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 exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the coastal enclave, most recently earlier this week.

“IDF troops have completed operational preparations for the events of Land Day in the southern region and are continuing to increase preparedness for a possible escalation of violence caused by violent and terrorist acts during [the protests],” the army said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’d ordered the military to prepare for an “extensive campaign” should Egypt-brokered ceasefire negotiations fail.

Ahead of the protests and riots expected for the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces deployed three additional brigades to the Gaza Division, along with an artillery battalion, and called up reservists from air defense and other select units.

The military also canceled weekend leave for all combat soldiers stationed in the Southern Command.

“The troops are receiving briefings and conducting preparedness checks and exercises simulating potential scenarios,” the military said.

Throughout the day IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi has been “holding situational assessments, discussing possible scenarios and approving operational plans,” the army said.

Kohavi also ordered that all preparations be completed by Friday.

Palestinians take part in demonstrations near the border with Israel east of Jabalya in the northern Gaza strip on March 30, 2018. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Palestinian Land Day marks a 1976 decision by the Israeli government to seize thousands of dunams of Arab-owned land in the Galilee region of northern Israel.

Last year on Land Day, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip launched the Great March of Return, a series of weekly protests and riots along the security fence that have at times seen the participation of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Israel maintains that the Hamas terror group appropriated the campaign for nefarious purposes, using the civilian protesters as cover for violent activities.

Some 30,000 Palestinians participated in the first protest event, held on March 30 2018. Fifteen Palestinians were killed in clashes with IDF soldiers protecting the border. Since then over 180 Palestinians have been killed in border violence, according to February figures from the UN Human Rights Council. Hamas has claimed dozens of the dead as members.

Israeli defense officials — as well as Hamas’s political foe, the Palestinian Authority — accuse the terror group of encouraging the border riots in an effort to distract from its failures in governing the Gaza Strip, a crowded patch of land with crushing unemployment, limited access to electricity and potable water, and few economic prospects.

This week saw a spike in tensions between Israel and Gaza after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a house in the agricultural community of Mishmeret in central Israel and destroyed it completely, wounding seven people. Israel responded with airstrikes on scores of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian terror groups launched dozens of rockets at Israeli communities in the Gaza periphery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with an IDF officer near the border with the Gaza Strip on March 28, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu visited Thursday an area adjacent to the Gaza Strip in order to monitor the deployment of IDF units in the field. He went to the staging areas and received security briefings from commander of the Ground Forces Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, and divisional and brigade commanders.

Afterward, while attending a ceremony in the north of the country, Netanyahu said he was prepared to launch an “extensive campaign” in the Gaza Strip should the need arise.

“We are tightening the security ring around the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said. “I recently ordered that the units be reinforced, that tools be added, in preparation for an extensive campaign. All citizens of Israel know that if an extensive campaign is necessary – we will go into it strong and secure, after all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

Meanwhile, the IDF published a video it said showed troops in recent days preparing for fighting inside Gaza, including training for urban warfare and house-to-house fighting similar to the conditions in the Strip.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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