Low turnout in last planned Gaza border protest until March 2020

Several Palestinians throw rocks and explosives at IDF troops, who respond with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, but no live fire

Palestinian rioters throw stones towards Israeli forces at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 27, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinian rioters throw stones towards Israeli forces at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 27, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Some 1,800 Palestinians took part in a demonstration along the Gaza Strip border, with dozens rioting and clashing with Israeli soldiers, in the last of the planned mass protests until March.

Amid heavy rain and wind, the rallies had the lowest turnout in months, with tensions far lower than in previous weeks and no live fire by the Israeli army, an AFP correspondent said.

Several Palestinians threw rocks and explosives at the soldiers who responded with riot dispersal means.

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said several people were wounded by rubber-tipped bullets.

The committee responsible for organizing weekly protests in the border region between Israel and the Gaza Strip announced on Thursday that demonstrations would take place less frequently in 2020.

The High Commission for the March of Return and Breaking the Siege, which includes representatives of Gaza-based terror groups and political factions, said in a statement that protests would occur on “a monthly basis as well as whenever we need masses to gather and during prominent national occasions,” starting on March 30, 2020. 

Palestinians in Gaza have participated in the protests along the border on most Fridays since March 30, 2018, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state.

The protests have frequently included violence, including the hurling of explosives, rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers, as well as attempts to storm and sabotage the border fence.

The Israel Defense Forces have often responded with live fire, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed at the demonstrations and thousands have been injured.

Palestinian protesters wave national flags during a demonstration marking the first anniversary of the “March of Return” protests, near the border with Israel east of Gaza City on March 30, 2019 (ANAS BABA / AFP)

Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

The announcement on Thursday comes after Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt in early December, where he held talks with the Egyptian General Intelligence Services.

For over a year now, Egypt has been a key player in brokering informal ceasefire understandings between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, including Hamas.

The understandings have largely entailed Israel lifting restrictions on the movement into and out of Gaza, in exchange for Hamas maintaining relative quiet in the border region between the coastal enclave and the Jewish state.

The statement on Thursday also comes after an unnamed source in the High Commission told the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper in mid-November that the body was holding a discussion about “rolling back the marches to once a month or during national occasions.”

Talal Okal, a Gaza-based analyst, said that the High Commission decided to reduce the frequency of the protests in the coming year because the understandings between Israel and Hamas were making progress.

“The understandings are moving forward. As long as that is the case and greater stability is being achieved, Hamas and other factions do not see a great need for the marches,” he said in a phone call.

“But they do not want to stop them entirely because they do not trust Israel will consistently implement the understandings. So by not canceling them altogether, they still have a tool that they can use to step up pressure on Israel as they see fit,” he added.

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