Terror leader tells Gazans to keep border protests nonviolent after flareup

Organizer of ‘March of Return’ says Friday demonstrations along security fence is about ‘masses gathering in a peaceful manner,’ not clashes with Israeli troops

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Palestinian woman carries her national flag during a  protest for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza on a beach in Beit Lahia near the maritime border with Israel, on September 17, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)
A Palestinian woman carries her national flag during a protest for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza on a beach in Beit Lahia near the maritime border with Israel, on September 17, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

One of the main organizers of the “March of Return” protests along the Gaza border called on participants on Thursday night to behave nonviolently in the demonstration planned for the next day, following a flareup between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group that threatened to spark all-out war.

“The most important message tomorrow is the masses gathering in a peaceful manner,” Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and an organizer of the march, wrote in a statement.

“The March of Return is continuing until its goals are attained, with an emphasis on the importance of holding marches that will be non-violent and led by the people,” he wrote.

Al-Batsh also called on participants not to give Israeli snipers a reason to open fire at them.

Daoud Shehab, another member of the organizing committee of the marches, said officials were encouraging protesters to stay away from the border fence. But he said he was not sure to what extent they would succeed in “restraining the public mood.”

Khaled al-Batsh, a senior official in the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and an organizer of the ‘March of Return’ border protests in the Gaza Strip. (Courtesy)

“There will be attempts to prevent them from approaching the fence. There might be a reduction of [incendiary] balloons,” he said. “We hope there will be no human losses tomorrow. We are giving a chance to the Egyptian efforts.”

According to reports, Egypt had warned Hamas that renewed protests would bring a heavy Israeli response.

In his statement, al-Batsh also thanked the Egyptian military intelligence delegation for its work bringing about a limited ceasefire with Israel on Wednesday and Thursday.

He also said the delegation was due to visit the Gaza Strip again the following week to continue the negotiation efforts.

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.

Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.

Damage to a house that was hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip in the city of Beersheba, southern Israel, October 17, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

The Israeli military was on high alert Friday ahead of the clashes expected for the afternoon and evening, coming two days after a rocket with a 20-kilogram (44-pound) warhead exploded outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba early Wednesday morning, causing significant damage, but no injuries as the mother inside had rushed her children to their bomb shelter moments before.

A second rocket also landed in the sea, off the coast of the greater Tel Aviv area, known in Israel as Gush Dan.

In response, the Israeli Air Force conducted strikes against some 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including a border-crossing attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory from the Palestinian city of Khan Younis.

On Thursday, Israel’s top-level security cabinet instructed the army to take a wait-and-see approach to allow mediation efforts to succeed, but also ordered the military to step up reprisal attacks should there be border violence.

Ministers said the IDF should ultimately adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward rocket attacks, arson balloons and rioting along the Israeli border, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018, shows an Israeli Merkava battle tank patrolling along the border with the Gaza Strip near Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The army may also look to tamp down on border riots by entering areas where it previously stayed away from, according to Channel 10 news.

Israel has demanded an end to the weekly confrontations, as well as the frequent launches of incendiary balloons into Israeli territory.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, only the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have access to the type of rockets fired on Wednesday morning.

The terror groups, however, denied responsibility for the launch, condemning those who carried it out as “irresponsible” and said they threatened to undermine an Egyptian-led effort to reach a negotiated armistice with Israel in exchange for certain economic incentives.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Thursday warned Israeli leaders not to make a mistake and misread their intentions, while ordering a probe into how a missile was launched from the Strip at Beersheba.

Experts have surmised a freak lightning strike may also be to blame for the launches, as a bolt was found to have struck near where the rockets were being stored.

An Israeli policeman watches a fire started by a balloon with attached burning cloth launched by Palestinians from Gaza Strip in Karmia nature reserve park near Israel and Gaza border, Thursday, October 11, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Even prior to the rocket attack, tensions along the border had been rising, with a rising clamor of calls within Israel for military action to stop incessant balloon attacks and border riots.

Last Friday, some 14,000 Palestinians thronged to the perimeter fence, burning tires and throwing rocks, firebombs and grenades at soldiers on the other side.

Some 20 Palestinians breached the border during the riots, and seven Palestinians were killed, including four who the military said had entered Israel and approached a military position. Israel responded by cutting off Qatari-funded fuel shipments meant to ease a chronic electricity shortage.

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