Israel and Gaza were girding for a possible return to violence Friday, amid fears that renewed border protests could push the sides back to the brink of war after a brief violent flareup days earlier.
Israeli troops were readying for weekly border protests Friday that have turned deadly in the past, with the day being seen as a key test in whether the sides can continue negotiating a long-term ceasefire deal as part of an Egyptian-led effort.
Israel has demanded an end to the weekly confrontations, as well as the frequent launches of incendiary balloons into Israeli territory.
Daoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee of the marches, said officials were encouraging protesters to stay away from the border fence. But he said he was not sure to what extent they would succeed in “restraining the public mood.”
“There will be attempts to prevent them from approaching the fence. There might be a reduction of balloons,” he said. “We hope there will be no human losses tomorrow. We are giving a chance to the Egyptian efforts.”
According to reports, Egypt had warned Hamas that renewed protests would bring a heavy Israeli response.
On Thursday, Israel’s top-level security cabinet instructed the army to take a wait-and-see approach to allow mediation efforts to succeed, but also ordered the military to step up reprisal attacks should there be border violence.
Ministers said the IDF should ultimately adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward rocket attacks, arson balloons and rioting along the Israeli border, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
The army may also look to tamp down on border riots by entering areas where it previously stayed away from, according to Israel’s Channel 10 news.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Thursday warned Israeli leaders not to make a mistake, while ordering a probe into how a missile was launched from the Strip at the Israeli city of Beersheba Wednesday.
The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have denied responsibility for the early morning attack, which destroyed a house but did not cause any injuries, saying it was meant to sabotage ceasefire talks.
Israel contends the two groups are the only ones with the ability to launch rockets capable of reaching the northern Negev city. Experts have surmised a freak lightning strike may also be to blame for launch, including a rocket shot at the same time that landed in the sea off the coast of the Tel Aviv area.
Israel struck back Wednesday with some 20 airstrikes and threatened more in response to continued violence, but the area has remained calm since.
On Thursday, a team of Egyptian mediators shuttled between Israel and Hamas in a stepped-up effort to forge a cease-fire between the two enemies.
The four Egyptian intelligence officials entered Gaza from Israel on Thursday afternoon, and then returned to Israel after meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s top leader. The group did not include Cairo’s spy chief Abbas Kamel, who on Wednesday canceled a planned trip to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.
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Khalil al-Haya, a top Hamas official, said the Egyptians had discussed cease-fire efforts, as well as on-and-off attempts at reconciliation with the rival Palestinian Authority. The talks were ongoing.
Arabic media reports have said that if achieved, a ceasefire would include at least a partial lifting of Israel’s restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza.
Even before the rocket attack, tensions along the border had been rising, with increasing calls within Israel for military action to stop incessant balloon attacks and border riots.
Last week, some 14,000 Palestinians thronged to the perimeter fence, burning tires and throwing rocks, firebombs and grenades at soldiers on the other side.
Some 20 Palestinians breached the border during the riots, and seven Palestinians were killed, including four who the military said had entered Israel and approached a military position. Israel responded by cutting off Qatari-funded fuel shipments meant to ease a chronic electricity shortage.
There has been increasing pressure on politicians and the military to launch a broad offensive to put an end to the weekly protests, arson balloons and occasional rocket fire.
The cabinet’s decision not to launch a military operation against Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other terror groups in the Strip was met with condemnation by local government leaders in southern Israel.
“We had every reason to deliver a serious response in a way that they would understand the message,” Eshkol Regional Council head Gadi Yarkoni told Channel 10 Thursday. “We should have taken advantage of what happened in Beersheba to restore deterrence, but unfortunately that did not happen.”
At the UN Thursday, envoy Nickolay Mladenov urged all friends of Israel and the Palestinians to push for all sides “to step back from the brink” of war, calling Gaza a “powder keg.”
“We remain on the brink of another potentially devastating conflict, a conflict that nobody claims to want, but a conflict that needs much more than just words to prevent,” he told the UN Security Council in a video briefing from Jerusalem.
“I am afraid that there is no more time for words,” Mladenov said. “Now is the time for action. And we must see very clear actions on all sides that de-escalate the situation. Otherwise, the consequences will be terrible for everyone.”
He said all parties must maintain their commitment under a cease-fire that ended a 2014 war — the third between the sides since the Hamas takeover.
Mladenov said Hamas and other terror groups must immediately stop “all provocations and attacks,” attempts to breach the border fence, end the use of incendiary balloons and kites, and halt tunnel construction.
“Israel must restore the delivery of critical supplies to Gaza and improve the movement and access of goods and people,” he said. “And Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint in the use of live ammunition.”
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas, an Islamist terror group which seeks to destroy Israel and seized control of Gaza in 2007, has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.