Israeli troops were girding Tuesday morning for a possible fresh round of violence on the Gaza border as Palestinians marked the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War.
The annual commemoration, known as the “Naksa” in Arabic, or setback, is usually marked by rallies, protests and often confrontations between Palestinians and IDF troops in the West Bank and Gaza.
Officials in Israel had feared the commemoration could see a return to violent protests on the Gaza border, though military officials now believe Gazans will wait until Friday, when major protests have been held for the past two months, to show up on the border in large numbers.
Nonetheless, extra troops are being deployed along the border Tuesday in case large-scale protests break out, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
Naksa Day marks the commemoration of the start of the Six-Day War on June 5, 1967, during which Israel captured wide swaths of land from Jordan and Egypt, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians maintain Gaza is still occupied by Israel, despite a unilateral retreat from the territory in 2005.
Since March 30 there have been weekly clashes on the Gaza border as part of the so-called “March of Return” protests, which had been originally planned to culminate with a mass attempt to breach the border fence in mid-May to mark Nakba Day, marking Palestinian dispossession during the war for Israel’s founding in 1948. Over 110 Gazans have been killed and thousands more injured by Israeli gunfire and tear gas.
Israel says it is defending the border from attempts by Gazans to damage or breach the Gaza fence and accuses the Hamas terror group of using the unrest as cover to carry out attacks. At least half of those killed have been identified as members of Hamas or other terror groups.
The protests peaked on May 14, when some 40,000 Gazans protested along the fence and violent clashes took place between troops and Palestinians. The date coincided with the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem.
Following the demonstrations, organizers had said Naksa Day would be the next large protest. However, Hamas has since attempted to garner support for larger protests on Friday June 8 instead, with the Naksa Day event expected to be more low key, according to Hebrew media reports, citing military assessments.
The Friday protest, dubbed the “March of a million to Jerusalem,” is being touted as a fresh attempt to breach the border fence en masse, drawing fears of a melee similar to what was seen on May 14, when Palestinians burned tires, threw firebombs, tried to cut through the fence and even shot at troops. Some 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces that day alone, sparking international outrage at what critics characterized as a heavy-handed response.
Tensions along the Gaza border have remained high since the May 14 protest, including nearly daily cross-border incidents.
Fears of a fresh conflict reached a boiling point on May 29, when Hamas — which rules the Strip — and Islamic Jihad, launched dozens of mortar shells and rockets at Israel, in apparent retaliation for the killing of three Islamic Jihad men in a shelling a day earlier. Israeli aircraft hit over 30 sites belonging to the two groups in response.
A shaky ceasefire has remained in place since then, with officials on both sides saying they are not interested in a larger conflict. However, continued cross-border incidents have threatened to snowball, highlighting the precariousness of the pause in wide-scale fighting.
On Friday, a Palestinian medic was shot and killed during border protests, drawing more Palestinian anger, and Saturday saw a fresh volley of rockets on Israeli towns near the border, drawing Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
On Monday, a Palestinian man was shot and killed when he attempted to cross the border armed with an ax, according to the Israel Defense Forces. A second man was wounded.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said later Monday he had told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the protests were the result of a deep malaise in Gaza over a worsening humanitarian crisis. He said Israel was “examining various possibilities to prevent a humanitarian collapse in Gaza.”
“Their converging on the border fence is a result of this financial crisis,” he told reporters. “It is a conscious decision.”
Gaza faces a lack of electricity, drinkable water, and food. Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the Strip which they say is designed to prevent Hamas from importing weapons and other goods that could be used to build fortifications or tunnels.
Israel has also said the humanitarian situation will not improve until Hamas returns the bodies of two IDF soldiers and the two civilians captives it holds. It blames Hamas for the dire situation, charging the terror group with diverting millions in aid to purchase weapons, dig tunnels, manufacture rockets and train its military wing, instead of using it for the welfare of the people.
The situation has been exacerbated by an ongoing dispute between Hamas and the PA, which has cut the salaries it pays to workers in Gaza and imposed various sanctions, including cutting of payments for electricity supplies to Gaza.
A senior IDF officer said last week that the situation in Gaza was at a nadir.
“Hamas is in its worst situation since it came to power [in 2007], and the same is true of the Gaza Strip. The responsibility for that lies first of all with Hamas, but we can also take steps,” he said. “Hamas is trying to figure out how to save itself from collapse, and it has only two solutions: reaching an arrangement [for quiet with Israel], or turning to military confrontation.”