Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned on Friday that any Palestinians from Gaza approaching the security fence with Israel were putting their lives at risk.
The warning, written in Arabic on Liberman’s Twitter profile, came as tensions flared on the first day of a planned six-week campaign, in which Gazans set up camp near the fence and began mass protests.
Dubbed the “March of Return,” the protest is backed by Gaza’s ruling regime, the terrorist group Hamas which seeks to destroy Israel. It also comes amid rising tensions as the United States prepares to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May.
Friday marks Land Day, when Palestinians commemorate the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover festival.
“Those who approach the fence today are putting themselves in danger,” Liberman said in his post. “I would advise [Gazans] to go on with your lives and not engage in provocations.”
Organizers of the protest had claimed it would be peaceful, but Israeli officials and the IDF were braced for violence along the enclave’s border.
Gazan officials said five Palestinians were wounded by IDF fire on Friday morning in separate incidents near the fence, three close to the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip and two near Rafah in the south.
Earlier Friday, the Gaza health ministry said a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli tank fire near Khan Yunis in the southern Strip. The man was identified by the Hamas-run ministry as Omar Wahid Sammour, 27. Witnesses said he was working his land near the border when the shells hit. The health ministry said a second man was injured.
The IDF said that it opened fire on four suspects near the security fence overnight, both in the north and south of the Gaza Strip. It said that during the incident outside Khan Yunis, “two suspects approached the perimeter fence… and engaged in suspicious behavior on the ground alongside it. In response, an IDF unit fired at them with a tank.”
The incident came hours after Israeli troops opened fire at a number of Palestinian rioters who tried to damage the security fence around the Gaza Strip, the army said.
According to the army, approximately 200 Palestinians took part in violent protests at four main locations along the security fence, lighting fires and throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on the other side.
The soldiers targeted a handful of “main instigators” who were trying to pull down portions of the fence, an army spokesperson said. Five Palestinians were shot, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said, after protesters approached the border in several places.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had warned in a Wednesday interview with the Israel Hayom daily that “if the Palestinians think they will organize a march and it will pass the [border] fence and they will march into our territory, they’re wrong.”
“A big portion of the army will be invested there,” Eisenkot told the rival Yedioth Ahronoth daily on the same day, adding that more than 100 snipers, most from “special units,” had been stationed in the area.
“If there will be a danger to lives, we will authorize live fire,” he declared. “The orders are to use a lot of force.”
The camp protest in Gaza is expected to continue until mid-May, around the time the US is set to inaugurate its new embassy in Jerusalem.
Mid-May will also mark the anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flee their homes during the 1948 War of Independence.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents are refugees or their descendants.
Khaled al-Batsh, the leader of the Islamic Jihad terror group, which is among the planners of the protest, said tents would be located 500 meters from the border, just outside the buffer zone between Gaza and Israel.
Water facilities were being installed and medical teams deployed to allow people to stay for long periods.
Organizers said tens of thousands of people would attend Friday’s protest, although it was not clear how the estimate was reached.
Batsh said protesters were calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land that is now inside Israel. “Seventy years ago we left and today we have decided to return to our country,” he told AFP.
But senior Hamas figure Salah Bardawil said that while protesters might breach the border, there were no plans to do so.
Hamas officials said they will monitor the area beyond the campsites to prevent protesters going too close to the frontier, at least during the initial days of the protest.
Five main campsites have been set up, spanning the length of the coastal territory from near the Erez border crossing in the north to Rafah in the far south, near Egypt.
At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.
No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.