Israeli soldiers mass on Gaza border ahead of major Palestinian protest

Hamas says it expects up to 100,000 Palestinians to take part in Friday’s March of Return

Israeli soldiers sit next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, Israel, on Thursday. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israeli soldiers sit next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, Israel, on Thursday. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

 

The Israeli military has deployed in unprecedented numbers during peacetime along the Gaza Strip border, declaring it is prepared to use “substantial force” to prevent Palestinians from rushing the border fence ahead of a mass march planned for Friday by Hamas.

More than 100 snipers, along with special forces, infantry and tank units are in position ahead of the march, which coincides with the start of the one-week Jewish festival of Passover.

Hamas said it expected as many as 100,000 Palestinians to take part in Friday’s “March of Return”, which is planned as a peaceful protest to commemorate Land Day, marking a 1976 incident in which Israeli forces killed six unarmed Israeli-Arab civilians during clashes in the Galilee.

Friday’s event is planned as the launch of a series of events over the next few weeks, culminating in May when Palestinians commemorate Nakba (catastrophe) day, as Israel celebrates its 70th year of independence and the US moves its embassy to Jerusalem.

A senior Hamas official in Gaza said the organisation which rules the coastal enclave has instructed its security forces to prevent protesters from coming within 800 metres of the security fence and to carry out searches to ensure the marchers are unarmed.

The organisers have set up tents, a field infirmary, water tanks and parking lots for buses to transport people to the staging area. Hamas has called on families, women and children to camp in the area, roughly 500 metres from the border fence.

Israeli soldiers listen to a briefing on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, Israel, on Thursday. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli soldiers listen to a briefing on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip, Israel, on Thursday. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

At the same time a Hamas official warned there will be a reaction to any Israeli provocations.

‘A harsh response’

“If Israel deliberately harms protesters or our people we will mount a harsh response,” he said. “We will not tolerate any aggression by the Israeli enemy.”

The head of Israel’s army, Ltn Gen Gadi Eizenkot, said troops will not allow a breach of the border.

“If the Palestinians think they can organise a march and cross the fence into our territory, they are wrong. We will use an iron fist to prevent protesters from infiltrating Israel. We have granted permission to open fire if lives are in jeopardy,” he said. [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh and whoever sent the protesters there will be solely responsible for whatever happens.”

The army suspects that militants may try to infiltrate the protesters in an effort to plant roadside bombs close to the border.

Farmers on the Israeli side of the Gaza border have been told to keep away from their fields over the weekend and residents close to the border who have guns have been told by the army to carry their weapons with them.

United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov called on both sides “to exercise restraint and take the necessary steps to avoid a violent escalation”.

Israel has imposed a week-long closure on the West Bank and Gaza beginning on Thursday night, to coincide with the Passover holiday, and entry to Israel will be allowed only in humanitarian cases.