Israel on Friday geared up for another showdown with Hamas-backed demonstrators on the Gaza border, with the IDF deploying snipers and tanks for the third consecutive week ahead of a mass Palestinian protest.
Friday’s protest is the third of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” demonstrations, which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.
Last Friday, about 20,000 Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza border in what Israel has described as a riot orchestrated by Hamas, and what Palestinians say was supposed to be a peaceful protest. The previous week there were an estimated 30,000 protesters.
Thirty-four Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli forces since March 30, according to the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza.
Israel says its forces have opened fire to stop attempts to harm soldiers, damage the fence, infiltrate Israel, and attempt to carry out attacks. Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and says it will prevent a breach of the fence at all costs. It has also identified a dozen of the casualties as members of various terrorist groups. Palestinians say protesters are being shot while posing no threat to soldiers.
Israel’s defense minister has warned that protesters approaching the border fence endanger their lives, drawing condemnation from rights groups that said such seemingly broad open-fire rules are unlawful.
The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, with the backing of smaller terror groups. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
The White House has called on Palestinians to engage in solely peaceful protests and stay at least 500 meters from Gaza’s border with Israel.
Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation. The “Return” refers to Palestinians’ demand that tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants be allowed to live in today’s Israel, an influx that would spell the end of Israel as the world’s sole Jewish-majority state.
An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from imported weaponry.
Egypt on Thursday opened its largely sealed border with the blockaded Gaza Strip for three days, Palestinian authorities said. In the fourth such opening this year, the Rafah crossing to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula will be open until Saturday for humanitarian cases, the interior ministry in Gaza said.
Tensions have flared since the beginning of the protests.
On Thursday, the IDF said it bombed Hamas military targets in the Gaza Strip, after an explosive device detonated near an Israeli army vehicle along the border on Wednesday. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said one Gazan was killed and another seriously wounded in the strike.
During that airstrike, Hamas gunmen targeted an Israeli aircraft with machine gun fire, and one of the bullets hit a family’s home in Kibbutz Sha’ar Hanegev as it fell back to earth. The gunfire triggered rocket sirens in the area, and the family rushed to a reinforced room inside their home. The bullet landed in the house’s shower. There were no injuries but light damage was caused to the roof and internal ceiling of the home.