Israeli forces were gearing up Tuesday for a second straight day of Palestinian protests and the prospect that they may spread, after hours of bloody clashes on the Gaza border Monday left at least 58 Palestinians dead and thousands more injured.
Tuesday is expected to be the culmination of seven weeks of protests at the Gaza Strip border fence, with fears that tens of thousands of Palestinians could take part in widespread demonstrations encouraged by the Hamas terror group. Similar demonstrations were expected in the West Bank and possibly the Lebanese border, as Palestinians mark a yearly commemoration of the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war with Israel, which Palestinians term the “catastrophe,” or Nakba.
Ahead of this week’s protests, the Israel Defense Forces dispatched two additional combat brigades — approximately 2,000 soldiers — to the Gaza border and one additional brigade to the West Bank.
As of Tuesday morning, no special instructions were given to the Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip periphery. Schools were open and farmers were allowed into their fields. Residents were told to go about their daily routines, but to adhere to any new instructions put out by authorities.
Nakba Day is often punctuated by protests and demonstrations in the Palestinian territories and along Israel’s borders, which this year are expected to be more severe amid tensions over the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem on Monday. Tuesday night may also mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, when tensions are often higher.
A majority of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of refugees, and the protests have been billed as the “Great March of Return” to long-lost homes in what is now Israel. Hamas leaders have also said the marches and protests are designed to erase the border and “liberate Palestine.”
Israel withdrew all troops and civilians from Gaza in 2005. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, seized control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority two years later.
On Monday, some 40,000 Palestinians took part in protests along the fence, at their peak, and thousands more demonstrated hundreds of meters from the border, according to the Israeli military, which accused the Strip’s Hamas rulers of leading the violence.
The protests, a day before the traditional Nakba Day, came as the US inaugurated its embassy in Jerusalem, a move that has drawn fierce Palestinian anger as well as international protests.
Throughout the day, Gaza protesters set tires ablaze, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air, and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border.
The Israeli military, which has come under international criticism for using excessive force against protesters, said Hamas — an Islamist terror group that calls for Israel’s destruction — tried to carry out bombing and shooting attacks under the cover of the protests and released video of protesters ripping away parts of the barbed-wire border fence.
Numerous fires broke out in agricultural fields near Israeli communities, sparked by kites laden with containers of burning fuel flown from Gaza into Israeli territory. Firefighters were called to fight the blazes. But many farmers did not wait for help and worked to put out the conflagrations themselves, tilling the soil around the fires in order to starve out the flames.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,700 were wounded in the violence, the highest death toll since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas-led fighters in Gaza.
Hebrew language media reported that 10 of those killed were terror operatives.
The Israel Defense Forces called the clashes “unprecedented,” compared to past weeks.
“This is unprecedented in terms of the level of violence, compared to previous weeks,” said spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, citing three attempted attacks by armed men against Israeli forces during the riots as the main proof of the riots’ ferocity.
Manelis said he expected the protests to continue Tuesday and possibly several more days after that.
The violence drew international condemnation against Israel and calls for calm Monday. The United Nations Security Council was due to discuss the deaths in an emergency meeting called by Kuwait Tuesday, though the US blocked the panel from moving forward with a statement calling for an independent probe and expressing “outrage.”
Ahead of Monday’s violence, the Israeli army dropped leaflets on Gaza, warning Palestinians to keep away from the fence separating the coastal enclave from Israel, the IDF said.
The Arabic leaflets also told residents of the coastal enclave that Hamas was endangering their lives.
“Hamas is trying to hide its many failures by endangering your lives,” the leaflets said. “At the same time, Hamas is stealing your money and using it to dig tunnels at your expense.”
The army did not say if it took similar action on Tuesday, and it was unclear if the violence would reach Monday’s levels, though there were early signals that the sides could pull back.
Hamas reportedly sent messages to Israel via mediators that it planned to retreat from its seven-week tent protest along the border and shift the tone of its protests, in which it had previously planned to attempt a mass breach of the border fence.
Palestinian sources told The Times of Israel that Hamas does not plan on stopping the protests altogether, but rather will try to keep a lid on them.
On the Israeli side, officials reportedly warned Hamas that it would resume assassinations of the terror group’s leaders if Hamas continues to organize clashes on the Gaza border.
At the same time, the Defense Ministry said it would reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza to allow humanitarian aid and other goods into the enclave in a bid to ease pressure on the Strip’s residents.
Fears of clashes elsewhere
Monday also saw smaller clashes in the West Bank, as several thousand people gathered in the center of Ramallah, while hundreds marched to the Qalandiya crossing on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where protesters threw stones at Israeli troops.
Security officials fear the protests may grow Tuesday with Nakba Day, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported.
Officials have also expressed concerns of protests along Israel’s northern border. Lebanese protesters have attempted to march on the border in the past.
In 2011, mass protests saw dozens of people breach the fence from Lebanon and Syria, with over a dozen people killed in the ensuing melee.
Judah Ari Gross and Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.