As night fell on the second successive Friday’s Hamas-backed “March of Return” at the Gaza border, the Israeli army said it had managed to frustrate what it called the terror group’s “manipulative” efforts to breach the border fence and carry out acts of terrorism under the cover of a public protest.
The Palestinian Authority meanwhile said it “strongly condemned” the killing of “peaceful” protesters in Gaza.
Some 20,000 Gazans participated in Friday’s demonstration — compared to over 30,000 a week ago — and Palestinian officials said nine people were killed in the course of the day, compared to some 20 a week ago.
Israeli military sources said it was believed that everyone who was hit by IDF gunfire had been engaged in violence. Some Hebrew media reports quoted IDF officials saying all those who were hurt were Hamas operatives.
The IDF released video footage of Gazans attempting to breach or target the fence under cover of huge plumes of black smoke caused by the burning of tires close to the border, and Israeli television showed footage of what appeared to be teenage Gazans rolling tires close to the border fence.
“What we’re seeing is violent disturbances under cover of which Hamas is trying to carry out acts of terrorism,” said Maj-Gen. Eyal Zamir, the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, terming the tactic “manipulation by Hamas.”
“Hamas sent children out ahead [toward the fence], cynically using them,” the IDF’s spokesman, Ronen Manelis, said on Friday night. Manelis specified that eight explosive devices and numerous petrol bombs were thrown, and that the IDF faced several attempts “to cut through the fence.”
“There were attempts to carry out acts of terrorism … using the smoke [from burning tires] for cover,” he said, but the IDF had ensured the fence was not breached.
“The army did its job,” said Manelis. “The fence was not breached and [Israel’s] sovereignty was not harmed.”
Israeli military officials indicated that the IDF’s warnings to Gazans to stay back from the fence, and its firm defense of the border at last week’s protests, had a deterrent effect. Far fewer demonstrators came near the fence, they said.
Hadashot TV news said imams at prayer sessions near the border during the day told Gazans to stay at least 300 meters from the border. Hamas leaders, who did circulate among the demonstrators, did not approach as close to the fence as they did a week ago, it also reported.
The IDF used large fans to clear the smoke from the burning tires, and doused the flames with water, the TV report also showed.
The IDF is maintaining a large deployment of forces at the border, braced for further disturbances in the coming days, and a likely third major demonstration next Friday.
IDF officials said Hamas was seeking “a victory picture” of its members breaching the fence, and/or crossing into Israel, and that the IDF had thus far prevented this. They said Hamas now faced the challenge of maintaining momentum for the planned ongoing protests, and that it had been disingenuously assuring Gazans in recent days that the protests would be peaceful so that they would continue to come to the demonstrations.
The PA, in a statement published in Ramallah Friday evening, called on its envoys to the UN, the Arab League and the EU to immediately work with all international parties to “stop this deliberate brutality and killing of innocent and defenseless people.”
The PA also renewed its call to provide “international protection” for the Palestinians.
Friday’s demonstration was the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.
Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation.
An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.