Israel sends troop reinforcements to Gaza, West Bank ahead of US embassy opening

Israel sends troop reinforcements to Gaza, West Bank ahead of US embassy opening

Army braces for efforts by hundreds of thousands of Gazans to breach border, and upsurge in unrest in West Bank and East Jerusalem

IDF soldiers on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip as thousands of Palestinians demonstrate near the border fence, April 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
IDF soldiers on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip as thousands of Palestinians demonstrate near the border fence, April 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Israeli army is deploying three additional brigades to Gaza and the West Bank at the start of what Israeli security officials believe could be an extremely violent week of Palestinian protests coinciding with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, the military said Saturday.

An army spokesperson told reporters that two of the reinforcement brigades would be sent to the Gaza Strip, while the third would be positioned in the West Bank.

The leaders of the Hamas terrorist group, which controls Gaza and seeks to destroy Israel, are encouraging hundreds of thousands of Gazans to try to breach the border with Israel en masse.

“We will place a million martyrs on this land until, God willing, we liberate it,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas, vowed this weekend. “We don’t care about [US President] Donald Trump’s moves or the indifference of the Arab world.” Hamas’s Gaza chief Yihya Sinwar said last week he hoped to see hundreds of thousands of Gazans breach the fence.

Israeli military officials said Saturday night that they were bracing for mass marches on the fence, the flying of dozens of “attack kites” carrying petrol bombs into Israel, efforts to plant explosives at the fence, and shooting attacks on Israeli troops deployed at the border. Firebomb-bearing kites sent over the Gaza border on Saturday sparked two brush fires in southern Israel, the latest in a slew of incidents in which airborne combustibles launched from the Palestinian enclave managed to set Israeli fields ablaze.

Gas pipes on fire at the Kerem Shalom goods crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. (IDF)

On Friday, Palestinian rioters set fire to gas pipes serving Gaza as well as electricity infrastructure and a conveyor belt used to transfer goods into the Strip. The IDF said dozens of protesters sabotaged infrastructure on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom goods crossing, causing tens of millions of shekels of damage.

Palestinian demonstrators fly a kite carrying burning materials to set fire to Israeli territory, during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on May 11, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The IDF is also bracing for violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There were two car-ramming attacks in the West Bank on Friday, with a soldier lightly injured in one of them, at a checkpoint near Nablus.

Security in Jerusalem has also been bolstered ahead of the politically tense week that will see the US move its embassy to the capital, Israel celebrate 51 years of the city’s reunification and the culmination of over six weeks of protests along the Gaza border, when Palestinians mourn the “catastrophe” of the creation of the Jewish state.

“Moving the embassy is a matter of both national and international importance, and police have been preparing accordingly in recent months,” a police official told the Ynet news site.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gives a first glimpse of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 11, 2018, ahead of its opening on May 14. (Screenshot)

The official said thousands of uniformed police and Border Police officers will be deployed throughout Jerusalem starting Sunday. He said the officers will secure the perimeter of the US embassy during the Monday opening, assist in securing the visiting American officials and help direct traffic.

Part of the preparations for the embassy ceremony have included carrying out “overt and covert operations against anyone who intended to disrupt or damage the ceremony,” he said.

Concurrently, Jewish and Israeli institutions abroad are also ramping up security out of fears that Iran will launch an attack after the IDF earlier this week struck dozens of its military sites in Syria in response to a barrage of Iranian rockets launched at Israel.

According to Ynet, synagogues, Jewish schools, and community centers have employed additional security measures, and Israeli diplomats have also been ordered to take caution. In a number of particularly sensitive countries where Israel has a diplomatic presence, the Foreign Ministry has requested additional security from the local government.

The report said that some officials fear that since Iran failed to launch a single rocket into Israeli territory in its attack early Thursday morning, Tehran may employ one of its proxy groups in Africa or Asia to attack Israelis or Jews in retaliation.

On Sunday, thousands of Israelis are expected to take part in the annual Jerusalem Day parade celebrating 51 years since the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War.

A new road sign indicating the way to the new US embassy in Jerusalem is seen on May 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

The march — in which primarily religious teenagers march through the Old City decked in white and blue, the colors of the Israeli flag — has raised tensions over its route through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. In previous years, the march has sparked sporadic incidents of violence between Israeli revelers and local Palestinian residents.

Amid fears that the nationalist demonstration could inflame tensions with local Arab residents, the police official stressed to Ynet that officers would show “zero tolerance for verbal abuse or physical violence” during the event.

He urged revelers to be mindful of the political sensitivities of the march, and to “maintain law and order.”

Israel is also girding for possible violence during Nakba Day protests on Tuesday, a national day of Palestinian mourning marking the “catastrophe” of Israel’s founding, commemorated every year on May 15.

In his first major briefing to international media since becoming head of the Gaza terror group in 2017, Sinwar implied he would like to see thousands of Palestinians crossing into Israel as part of the culmination of more than a month of protests.

A Palestinian uses a slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 11, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Sinwar said the mass protest would be “decisive,” and vowed that he and other top officials were “ready to die” in a campaign to end Israel’s decade-old blockade of the territory.

In recent Fridays, Palestinian protesters have burned tires along the fence, hurled stones at Israeli troops, and flown incendiary kites over dry fields on the Israeli side of the border. Some of the protesters, mainly youths, brandished wire cutters, a popular tool in weekly attempts to cut through the border fence.

According to the Hamas health ministry, 48 Palestinians have been killed since protests and clashes began along the Gaza border on March 30 and hundreds of others have been wounded from gunfire. Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, damage to the fence, and attacks.

Israel has repeatedly expressed concern over the possibility of a mass breach of the Gaza fence, in which Palestinians would stream across with terrorists among them, wreaking havoc. Sinwar has vowed in the past that protesters would “breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” referring to the major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.

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