High tensions at Gaza border over protest anniversary
Gaza’s residents warned to stay away from border as army deploys more than 100 snipers
Palestinians sit near the Israeli-Gaza border fence, ahead of the first anniversary of border protests. Photograph: Reuters/ Mohammed Salem
Israeli soldiers make their way to their positions at the Israeli border with Gaza next to the security fence. Photograph: EPA/ Atef Safadi
The Israeli army is on high alert along the Gaza border as Palestinians plan large demonstrations on Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the weekly March of Return protests.
The army’s southern command has been beefed up with three brigades, weekend leave for soldiers in the south has been cancelled and more than 100 snipers are expected to be deployed along the length of the border.
Following a week of tension when Israel and Hamas pulled back from the brink after Egyptian mediation, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear that a major Israeli offensive was still an option.
“All Israelis should know that if a comprehensive campaign is required, we will enter it strong and safe, and after we have exhausted all of the other possibilities,” he said.
An Egyptian military intelligence delegation has been working to broker an arrangement under which Hamas will keep the protesters a few hundred metres from the border and Israeli troops will hold fire as long as they don’t approach the fence.
According to Israel’s Channel 12 television news, the Egyptian delegation passed a warning from Israel to Hamas: “Any mistake you make on Saturday could lead to war.”
“Stay away from the border and do not approach the fence. Israel is determined to continue to defend its citizens. Heed your safety.”
Standing before the rubble of his Gaza city office, which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on Monday, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh urged Palestinians to come out in force for the Saturday demonstration, which also commemorates Land Day, when six Israeli Arabs were killed in 1976 protests against land expropriation in the Galillee.
He said Hamas’s actions on Saturday would depend on their demands being met.
“We stand at a crossroads and Israel’s response to the needs of our nation will determine the way in which the situation will pan out at the March of the Million.”
More than 180 Palestinians have been killed in the year of border protests and thousands injured.
With Israeli elections only a week and a half away, Mr Netanyahu faces a dilemma: he has to avoid appearing weak against Hamas but must avoid a dangerous escalation that could result in Israeli military and civilian casualties and potentially leave a million residents of the south confined to bomb shelters.
Fearing the worst, some Israelis in the Gaza periphery area chose to spend the weekend away from home.
“We mainly want the children to be far from all these events,” one resident told the Ynet news site. “This time we decided because of the preparations, which are expected to be very tense, we just want to go outside and breathe, all of us together as a community and return at the end of the fighting.”