With extra troops, snipers, drones, Israel braces for Land Day border protest

7 years ago, mobs from Lebanon and Syria broke through the northern security fence. Now, fears are growing that Gaza march planned for Friday could end in mass border rush

Judah Ari Gross

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

Palestinians help evacuate an injured protester during clashes with Israeli troops, near Khan Yunis, by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, on March 9, 2018.  (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Palestinians help evacuate an injured protester during clashes with Israeli troops, near Khan Yunis, by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, on March 9, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Israel’s security forces are gearing up for huge “Land Day” protests, expected to take place along the Gaza Strip’s security fence on Friday, putting additional units on alert out of concerns that large numbers of Palestinians might try to break through the barrier and rush into Israel.

Earlier this month, Palestinian groups announced plans for a six-week-long “March of Return,” including the construction of a tent city across from the Gaza security fence, and called on tens of thousands of Gaza residents to participate in what they described as a “peaceful protest.”

The “March of Return” is set to begin on Friday with “Land Day,” which marks the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and the ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover holiday.

The protests will continue until May 15, the day after the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

While organizers said the protest is meant to be peaceful, the army is preparing for the demonstrations to resemble the violent riots that have taken place along the Gaza security fence on a weekly basis since December, when US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These weekly protests generally involve young Palestinian men burning tires and hurling rocks or Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops on the other side of the barrier.

Illustrative: Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 22, 2017. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the riots have also been used as cover for Palestinian terrorist groups to place improvised explosive devices along the border. In one such case, a bomb disguised as a flagstaff was placed on the fence and seriously injured four Israeli soldiers when they tried to remove it the next day.

To prepare for the expected protests, additional army battalions, Border Police units, and dozens of snipers will be deployed along the Gaza border on Friday, in order to keep demonstrators from crossing, a military source said.

A Border Police sniper takes aim across the Gaza border toward demonstrations along the security fence, on December 9, 2017. (Israel Police)

In addition, police officers will be stationed a bit farther back, in order to keep back any Palestinians who breach the first line of defense, according to the source.

Additional teams of IDF soldiers will also patrol the Israeli communities closest to the border, the Ynet news site reported on Monday.

Besides the added boots on the ground, the security forces are also likely to again deploy drones that can drop tear gas on protesters on the Gaza side of the border, a technique that the Border Police tested earlier this month.

According to Palestinian media, the IDF has sent bulldozers into the buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip in order to clear the area of debris. Israel’s Hadashot news also reported that these bulldozers put in place additional barbed wire fencing on the Gaza side of the security barrier.

Palestinians protest in front of Israeli security forces as they mark Land Day outside the compound of the Israeli-run Ofer prison near Betunia in the West Bank on March 30, 2016. (Flash90)

These Land Day and Nakba Day protests are held annually, though this year the military believes they could be more intense, in light of ongoing tensions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — both between Israel and the Palestinians and between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. In addition, Palestinians have been infuriated by the United States’s plans to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 15. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which regularly sees increases in violence by Palestinians, also begins on May 15.

This convergence of events is leading to “increased volatility” on the Palestinian front, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi said in a speech on Sunday.

Even without these upcoming events, the security situation along the Gaza border has been increasingly precarious in recent weeks, following the IED attacks and a recent attempt by masked Palestinian men to set fire to the equipment being used to construct an above- and below-ground barrier around the coastal enclave.

The tension could be seen most clearly in the unnecessary launch of approximately 20 Iron Dome interceptor missiles on Sunday night, after the system’s radar misidentified gunshots as rocket launches. According to the IDF, this was not a technical error, but the result of the Iron Dome system being programmed to be “oversensitive,” in light the current security situation.

Halevi and other army officials insist that Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, is exploiting the restlessness and frustration of Gaza residents by sending them to the border for these demonstrations.

Israeli soldiers observe Palestinian protesters during clashes near the border fence east of Gaza City on February 23, 2018. (AFP Photo/ Mohammed Abed)

The Military Intelligence chief said that Hamas’s recent efforts to “run into the arms of Iran” and its calls for more violent action along the security fence would “only make the situation worse” for Gazans.

Halevi added that this violence is more likely, as the “calming factors have been weakened” in Palestinian society.

The IDF, Border Police, and Israel Police will therefore have to be prepared for a variety of possible scenarios, from widespread peaceful protests, which require a softer touch, to a full-scale violent rush toward Israel that the troops would have to forcibly repel — while also attempting to minimize Palestinian casualties.

The IDF’s desire to limit the number of Gazans injured or killed in the protests planned for Friday is not only a goal in its own right for the IDF, but also serves a strategic purpose. In the past, these casualties have served as catalysts for additional and sometimes more violent demonstrations, as can be seen in the case of Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, a disabled Palestinian protester, who was killed in a protest in Gaza on December 15.

Palestinians carry a poster of wheelchair-bound protester Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, who was killed last week during clashes with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City, on December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/ Mohammed Abed)

Palestinians maintain that Abu Thurayeh was killed by an Israeli sniper, while the IDF says its investigation of the case was inconclusive and that he was not directly targeted.

Regardless, Abu Thurayeh’s death served as a motivating factor for Palestinian protesters in future demonstrations.

Demonstrators gather along Syria’s border with Israel before trying to cut through a line of barbed wire and head into the Golan Heights, as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams, on June 5, 2011. (Flash90/File)

While working to keep casualties to a minimum, Israeli security forces would not want a repeat of the Naksa Day protests in June 2011 — marking Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War and capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Desert and Golan Heights — during which mobs from Lebanon and Syria rushed the border, breaking through the security fence.

In the ensuing chaos, several Lebanese and Syrian citizens were killed. The exact numbers are a source of dispute, as is the issue of who killed them.

Eleven Lebanese nationals were reportedly killed, with Israeli officials maintaining that they were not shot by IDF soldiers, but by members of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Syrian media reported that 23 protesters were killed, but Israeli officials said this figure was exaggerated, and maintained that soldiers aimed at the rioters’ legs in order to avoid fatal wounds.

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