Gaza protest of Israeli blockade yields disappointing turnout
Some 5,000 gather to form human chain against embargo; IDF had braced for touted 40,000 protesters.
A Palestinian attempt to draw international attention to Israel's siege on the Gaza Strip yielded a disappointing turnout Monday, with a few thousand, rather than the expected tens of thousands, forming a human chain of protest.
The protesters, many women and children and many holding Palestinian and Hamas flags, turned out for the start of what organizers said they hoped would be a peaceful protest involving some 50,000 people.
The protesters were to supposed to run the length of the 40 kilometer-long Gaza Strip, from the Rafah border to the Erez crossing.
About 5,000 people, many of them schoolchildren and university students, formed a human chain outside the town of Beit Hanun, about six kilometers from the border.
The crowd hoisted banners in English and Arabic, saying "End the siege of Gaza now," and "Your siege will not break our will".
Smaller demonstrations were held in other towns throughout Gaza.
After the protest ended, some 2,000 Hamas loyalists marched to a checkpoint several kilometers away from Erez.
However, Hamas police blocked the main road leading to the Erez checkpoint and called on loyalists to obey the law.
About 50 youths briefly approached Erez and threw stones and burned tires near the crossing, witnesses said. The army said border police fired in the air and dispersed the crowd.
PM: Israel prepared for every scenario
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, responding Monday to reports of a threat of a mass penetration of Palestinian protesters from Gaza Israel, said he was unaware of alerts warning of such a move but told reporters that Israeli security forces were prepared for all possibilities.
Israel "always takes into account scenarios in order to be ready for them," he said, while en route to Tokyo.
Hamas vowed early Monday to use any means to breach the Israeli embargo on the Gaza Strip, hours before the planned mass rally.
There were conflicting reports that the demonstrators would attempt to break through the fence and enter Israeli territory.
A Hamas official said Monday that the group's security forces have been instructed to prevent any attempts by protesters to cross the border into Israel, Israel Radio reported.
The borders were sealed and foreign journalists were prevented from entering the territory.
Earlier, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri stopped short of threatening to breach the border, but said: "Our people will not allow the continuation of this situation regardless of the results, and we will work to break the siege by all possible means.
"We hold them [Israeli leaders] responsible for any harm to the participants in these peaceful demonstrations," he added.
Asked about the possibility of such a move, Olmert told reporters accompanying him on a trip to Japan, "I do not know of warnings such as this."
But Olmert added that "In the Middle East, every imaginary scenario is something that must be related to and which we must be able to respond to at the appropriate time."
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said as the general responsible for Gaza during a previous Palestinian uprising he had seen mass demonstrations before and was confident the army would be able to cope.
"Once you are deployed and prepared and there is no element of surprise I imagine the outcome is very clear," he told Israel Radio. "Everything that it is necessary to do will be done.
"I hope that, ultimately, they [Hamas] understand that we are deployed and ready, that this will not be a repeat of what happened in the Philadelphi Corridor [Gaza-Egypt border] a few weeks back," he said, referring to Hamas militants' breach of the frontier fence in late January.
"We don't plan to fool around in this regard," he told Israel Radio. "We will use measures in the way we deem necessary to prevent people breaking into the state of Israel's territory."
Asked if this could include using live fire against Palestinians, Vinai said: "Anything that must be done, will be done."
Former defense minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel Radio: "Hamas today rules Gaza. If Hamas doesn't want them to cross the border fence in the direction of Israel, they will succeed in halting an incident of this kind.
"We trust the security forces to take the proper measures such that an incident of this kind will not take place," he added.
Meanwhile, three Hamas militants were killed and at least four others wounded early Monday in two separate Israel Air Force strikes in the Gaza Strip.
IDF beefs up forces along Gaza border
The Israel Defense Forces has bolstered its forces along the border with the Gaza Strip, fearing that the rally's participants will try to break into Israel. Commanders have received orders to stop entry into Israel "by all means," including sniper fire against the legs of the demonstrators.
The organizers of the demonstration are planning a "human chain" which will stretch along the main highway running north to south in the Strip.
The head of the Popular Committee Against the Siege of Gaza, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament, Jamal al-Hudari, who is close to Hamas, said that the chain will stretch to 40 kilometers in length, from Rafah in the south to the Erez crossing.
He said that the demonstration will wind down with a rally near the crossing point.
Hudari insisted that the organizers have no intention of the human chain becoming party to a confrontation with the IDF, and said their aim was only to hold a peaceful protest. However, it appears that Hamas, which is behind the planning of the march, intends to help with the transfering of thousands to the area where the demonstration will be held.
It is also possible that the demonstrators will approach the Erez crossing or other border crossings, in order to confront the army.
Palestinian journalists said Sunday that Hamas is likely to bring school children to Erez and other potential sites of friction, who will be sent near the crossings to throw stones, as the cameras are rolling.
The same sources said that the events will be similar to those at the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996, and there will be no rushing the fence - only challenging the troops from afar.
In Southern Command and the Gaza Division, special orders were issued Sunday on how to prevent a possible breach of the fence by demonstrators, as Haaretz repored Sunday.
The command decided to substantially bolster the presence of troops near the fence, and the rules of engagement issued include various levels of warning, including, in cases where it is necessary, the use of live ammunition "selectively."
The commanders on the ground were granted a certain latitude of independence in deciding when it would be necessary to open fire. Senior officers in the Southern Command visited the fence area Sunday morning in order to closely oversee the preparations to counter the demonstrations while means for dispersing demonstrations were distributed to the troop.
Border Police units that specialize in crowd dispersal have also been sent to the area while for its part, the police will also upgrade its readiness level to a notch under maximum. Police units will also be transferred south in order to bolster the IDF in blocking any breach to the fence.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday night that "Hamas is behind this activity that is intentionally placing the civilians at the front - and not for the first time."
"Israel does not intervene in demonstrations inside the Gaza Strip, but it will defend its territory and will prevent a breach of its sovereign borders," Barak added. "We are working to prevent a deterioration and we are making it clear if something happens, the sole responsibility will be on Hamas."