Israeli military readies for potential violence during Nakba Day and Eurovision

Israeli military readies for potential violence during Nakba Day and Eurovision

Protests expected Wednesday along Gaza border and in West Bank, amid high tensions following this month’s bloody two-day Hamas rocket assault and IDF response

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A protester hurls stones at Israeli troops as a woman wearing a traditional Palestinian outfit waves a national flag, during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 10, 2019. (Said KHATIB / AFP)
A protester hurls stones at Israeli troops as a woman wearing a traditional Palestinian outfit waves a national flag, during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 10, 2019. (Said KHATIB / AFP)

Israeli security forces and communities near the Gaza border prepared for thousands of Palestinians to take part in Nakba Day demonstrations along the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave on Wednesday, though these were expected to be tamer than last year’s Nakba Day clashes in which protesters attempted to breach the security fence, threw explosives at Israeli troops and, in one case, shot at soldiers.

In what remains the deadliest day of fighting in Gaza since the 2014 war, 62 Palestinians were killed in the clashes on May 14, 2018, 53 of whom were later claimed as members of terror groups, including eight who died in a gun battle with IDF troops.

Israeli troops along the Gaza border and throughout the West Bank were put on high alert ahead of the demonstrations planned for Wednesday afternoon, though a shaky ceasefire agreement struck between Jerusalem and the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups in the Strip earlier this month — following a vicious round of fighting last week — will likely prevent a repeat of last year’s violence.

In an effort to avoid another flare-up, Israeli troops were reportedly given stricter rules of engagement, requiring higher levels of approval before live fire could be used, as Palestinian fatalities along the border have in the past prompted retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza terror groups and larger outbreaks of violence.

Israeli soldiers gather at a position over an earth barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on March 30, 2019, as Palestinians (background) protest to mark the first anniversary of the March of Return protests. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Border Police were also preparing for potentially violent protests in the West Bank, according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Nakba Day, or Catastrophe Day, commemorates the displacement of Palestinians from their homes following the creation of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948.

A complicating factor for Israeli security forces in preparing for this year’s Nakba Day protests is the Eurovision Song Contest, which is being held in Tel Aviv this week. The international competition and the global recognition that comes with it presents a highly vulnerable target for terror groups, as an attack during the event would likely garner worldwide coverage.

Netta Barzilai, winner of the 2018 Eurovision performs during a rehearsal ahead of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv on May 13, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, Israel would likely respond forcefully to any such offensive — a significant deterrent for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups.

Recent weeks have seen skyrocketing tensions in the Gaza Strip, following a massive two-day flare-up earlier this month between Israel and terror groups in the coastal enclave, in which terrorists fired nearly 700 rockets, mortar shells and anti-tank guided missiles at southern and central Israel, killing four people. The military struck back, hitting over 300 Hamas- and PIJ-linked targets, including several rocket-launching teams. Twenty-five Palestinians were killed in the fighting, most of them members of terror groups.

After some 40 hours of fighting, Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement — one that Jerusalem has not formally recognized, but has abided by — under which Israel agreed to a number of economic and humanitarian concessions in exchange for an end to violence from the Gaza Strip.

As part of this agreement, Qatar on Monday began distributing $100 payments to 109,000 needy families in the Gaza Strip. In total, Doha said it agreed to give $180 million in funds to Gaza and $300 million to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to “aid the brotherly Palestinian people in obtaining its basic needs.”

A Palestinian man holds a $100 bill, part of $480 million in aid allocated by Qatar, in Gaza City on May 13, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Israel also extended the fishing zone around the Strip on Friday and has reportedly agreed to lift some restrictions on the import of goods to Gaza and allow a number of international organizations to administer recovery and work programs in the severely economically depressed enclave.

Jerusalem has long held that its restrictions on the movement of goods aim to prevent Hamas and other terror groups sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state from obtaining weapons and the materials to produce them.

Following last week’s fighting, the military said it believed the relative calm in the Strip would last at least through this weekend, though the Israel Defense Forces added that more lasting quiet would require a change in the government’s Gaza policies.

Nevertheless, a number of security measures were ordered for the area around the Strip beginning Wednesday morning.

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows a bus set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza, on November 12, 2018. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Beginning at 10:00 a.m., the Black Arrow memorial site and Horseman Hill outside Kibbutz Nir Am, northeast of Gaza, would be closed to visitors as both of them are vulnerable to sniper and anti-tank guided missile fire from the Strip. Indeed, Black Arrow was the site of such an attack in November in which an IDF  soldier was seriously injured.

Farm work in fields near the Gaza border would only be allowed if coordinated with the military. Gatherings of more than 100 people in the area around the Strip would also require IDF approval.

The Sons of Zouari, which has been behind most of the balloon-based attacks on southern Israel in the past year, also threatened in a statement that the terror group would be “more active than ever” on Wednesday.

In light of the expected balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices, the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council reminded residents not to touch any suspicious objects and to call either the police or their community’s security coordinator if they should find one.

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov speaks at a press conference during a visit to the Gaza Strip on July 15, 2018. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Though the military said it did not anticipate terror groups in the Strip to carry out large-scale attacks at least through this week, UN envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov on Monday said a fresh conflict between Israel and terror groups in the Strip could still break out.

“The risk of war remains imminent and today we have perhaps the last chance to consolidate the agreements that have been reached,” he said, speaking at the inauguration of a solar power generator for a hospital in Gaza.

Mladenov warned that “the next escalation is going to be probably the last one” before the sides descend into a full-fledged war, referring to a series of increasingly violent rounds of fighting that have broken out on the Gaza frontier in the last year.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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