Israel drops leaflets warning Gaza protesters to keep away from fence

‘Hamas is using you to carry out terror activity,’ army tells Palestinian demonstrators ahead of expected clashes, as protest tents moved closer to border

Palestinian protesters set up tents at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Thursday, April 19, 2018 (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian protesters set up tents at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Thursday, April 19, 2018 (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Israeli military aircraft dropped leaflets near the Gaza border on Friday morning warning Palestinians to keep away from the fence separating the coastal enclave from Israel, the IDF said, ahead of expected mass demonstrations slated for later in the day.

In a statement, the army said that the leaflets warned “against approaching the fence, attempting to damage it or attempts at terrorism.

“Violent disturbances in recent weeks took advantage of civilians in order to carry out terrorist acts against Israeli and IDF security infrastructure,” the statement continued. “The IDF will not abide damage to security infrastructure and the fence, which protect Israeli citizens, and will target anyone who attempts to harm Israel’s security.”

Tensions have been high in recent weeks as tens of thousands of Palestinians have engaged in clashes with Israeli troops on the border for three consecutive Fridays.

Last week, at least 10,000 Gazans took part in large-scale demonstrations, with the IDF saying protesters hurled an explosive device and firebombs at Israeli troops deployed at the border, as well as making “several attempts” to damage the fence and cross over into Israeli territory. The previous Friday, about 20,000 Palestinians took part in the demonstrations, with the previous week attracting an estimated 30,000.

Images on a leaflet dropped by Israeli military aircraft near the Gaza border ahead of Friday demonstrations, April 20, 2018 (IDF)

On Thursday, Gaza protest organizers moved their sit-in tents closer to the border fence, raising fears for more deadly clashes.

Addressed to “residents of Gaza,” the leaflets dropped near the border on Friday read: “You are participating in violent disturbances. Hamas is using you to carry out terror activity. The IDF is prepared for every scenario. Refrain from approaching the fence or damaging it. Refrain from using weapons or carrying out violent acts against Israeli security forces and Israeli civilians. Stay away from terror operatives and any who encourage disturbances and violence.

“The IDF,” the leaflets continued, “will respond to any attempt to damage the [border] barrier and its components, or any other military equipment. Hamas is using you to promote its political interests. Don’t follow Hamas’s orders, which endanger your lives. There is another way — your future is in your hands.”

On Thursday night, US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt said that Gazans “have the right to protest their dire humanitarian circumstances,” but warned them to keep a “safe distance” from the Israeli border.

US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2017. (FLASH90)

In a series of tweets, Greenblatt said the organizers of the Friday border protests should be focusing on the grim conditions in Gaza and “not stoke the potential for more violence with firebombs and flaming kites and must keep a safe distance from the border.” He said the cost of the demonstrations was “too high in loss of life and injuries” — although he did not specify who was to blame for that — and that that was why Trump was “willing to invest so much to forge peace.”

More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes over the past three weeks, according to Hamas-run health authorities. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terror groups.

The army said protesters have burned tires and thrown bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and made attempts to breach the border fence. Soldiers have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire.

The National Forum for the March of Return, one of several Palestinian groups behind the weekly demonstrations, said they were “affirming our right to return.” It was a reference to the Palestinian demand that Israel allows tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants to “return” to homes and lands inside Israel which they left or were forced from during Israel’s 1948 Independence War.

The protests, encouraged by Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip, began March 30. Organizers said they would gradually move the camps toward the fence until May 15, but made conflicting comments about a possible breach.

While some organizers portray the protests as peaceful, Hamas leaders say their goal is to erase the border and liberate Palestine.

Black smoke rises from tires burned by Gaza protesters at the border with Israel, with Israeli soldiers seen in the foreground, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We will cross the border,” said Daoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee from the smaller Islamic Jihad group, adding that Israel “should feel really jittery as a result of these marches.”

Israel has warned it will not tolerate a mass border breach or permit protesters to get close to the fence. The IDF said Thursday that it is ready for all scenarios and is “prepared to prevent any breach of Israeli sovereignty or damage to the border fence.”

In a camp east of Gaza City, five tents were moved to within 300 meters of the border, just in range of tear gas volleys. Bulldozers also raised protective sand berms around the new tents. In another protest site in southeastern Gaza, earth mounds were created to define the camp’s new boundary.

Activists were testing new means of confronting Israel — kites with burning rags dangling from their tails. The aim is to set ablaze drying wheat fields on the Israeli side.

Several fires have been started in wheat fields on the Israeli side of the border by such contraptions in recent days. The Facebook page of the Gaza protest organizers published images Wednesday of Israeli fields behind the fence, taken from a small camera attached to a kite.

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party 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.

At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.

No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand since it would spell the end of Israel’s Jewish majority.

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