Israel’s defense establishment will be focused on the Gaza Strip this week, where mass protests backed by the Hamas government are planned for Friday along the border with Israel. The Palestinians are planning on establishing six to eight big tent camps, housing thousands of people, mostly women and children along the border but some 700 meters from the fence.
Friday is Land Day: The intention is for thousands of Palestinians to remain near the fence until Nakba Day, in mid-May. The overall intention is to protest nonviolently, but there are to be weekly demonstrations near the fence on Friday, culminating in a huge march on Nakba Day. Israel is preparing for large-scale protests that could turn violent, with attempts to cross the border fence and to perpetrate terror attacks (like the recent detonations of explosive devices along the fence).
Israel’s military has proved it can deal with marches and demonstrations well when it has time to prepare. Matters get out of hand — as they did on Nakba Day 2011, along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights — only when the army is surprised. This time, the army seems to be getting ready. On Thursday, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot met with top commanders for several hours at Tze’elim Base, in the Negev. The Land Day and Nakba Day protests were on the agenda. Eisenkot ordered massive troop reinforcements — of a few battalions, at least — along the Gaza border for next weekend. That means thousands of soldiers will spend the Passover Seder, on Friday night, far from home. They will be joined by snipers, Border Police units and police with riot control training and equipment. The rules of engagement will remain in force: Anyone who tries to cross the border will be subject to “suspect arrest protocol” (firing in the air and then at the legs), and anyone who tried to injure soldiers will be hit.
Eisenkot has ordered commanders to try as much as possible to avoid civilian deaths, but the mission they were given is to prevent a mass crossing of the border fence, which could end with dozens, if not hundreds, of injured Palestinians. The army is also planning for the possibility of escalation this week in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, where one Israeli civilian and two soldiers were killed in the space of three days this month.
Even if the army gets through Seder night unscathed, tension in the territories is expected to ratchet up gradually in April and May, against the backdrop of local and international developments: the failure of the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the severe infrastructure crisis in the Gaza Strip and the belligerence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas toward the United States, Israel and Hamas. Events around Iran and in the territories will come together in one week in May, in which Trump is expected to announce whether he is backing out of the Iranian nuclear accord, the U.S. Embassy plans to relocate to Jerusalem and the Gaza protests are expected to peak.