Israeli Army Prepares for 50,000 Protesters at Gaza Border on Friday

Security forces are concerned Hamas may exploit the chaos to launch attacks as they prepare for second weekend of mass demonstrations – this time with a higher turnout expected

Israel soldiers ride on a military vehicle as Palestinian demonstrators are seen during clashes at a tent city protest at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 3, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

The Israeli military expects some 50,000 Palestinians to participate in Friday's planned protests near the border fence with the Gaza Strip in five separate locations, an increase over the 35,000 who came out to protest last Friday. At a meeting on Thursday senior army officials also discussed the possibility that Hamas would exploit the chaos surrounding the protests in order to commit an attack inside Israeli territory.

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On Thursday, Israel reinforced the military presence near the border fence. The rules of engagement during the protests are to remain unchanged, meaning that snipers will be permitted to shoot at anyone on the Gaza side of the fence who approaches close to it with the intention of crossing into Israel. Human rights organizations in the country and international groups have criticized this protocol, which they say led to the unjustified killing of unarmed Palestinians.

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On Friday, Jason D. Greenblatt, U.S. envoy to the Middle East, released a statement urging protest leaders to keep demonstrators "marching peacefully; should abstain from all forms of violence" and "should not approach the border fence in any way or location."  

"We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters - including children - to the fence.... Instead, we call for a renewed focus by all parties on finding solutions to the dire humanitarian challenges facing Gazans," Greenblatt added.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called for restraint on both sides ahead of the planned march, saying: "Israeli forces should exercise maximum restraint and Palestinians should avoid friction at the fence. Demonstrations must be peaceful. Civilians, particularly children, must not be intentionally put in danger or targeted in any way."

In a statement released Thursday, the European Union also called upon "all sides, to act with utmost responsibility and restraint in order to avoid a repetition of last week's violence and to refrain from any actions that could lead to further escalation or loss of life." 

The EU said it also expects Israel "to respect the fundamental right to peaceful protest" and "proportionality in the use of force when defending its legitimate security interests."

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Thursday that the death toll in the protests had reached 20, although it appears to have included a few cases in which those killed are thought to have been armed.  While the military has defended its handling of the protests, it plans to hold an internal investigation to examine the circumstances leading to the deaths.

Israeli army spokesman Ronen Manelis said on Thursday that security forces would not permit any violation of Israeli sovereignty. "Tomorrow Hamas will again attempt to carry out its terror attacks, as it did last night, when an attempt by an armed terrorist to commit an attack was thwarted," he said.

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Hamas operatives, including members of its armed wing, have been prominent in the preparations for the demonstrations and the protests themselves. A large number of tires have been assembled in Gaza, which will reportedly be set on fire in the hopes that smoke will make it hard for snipers to find their targets. On social media, this Friday’s protest is already being dubbed Rubber Tire Day.

In preparation for Friday’s protests, bulldozers were at work on Wednesday expanding the area of the tent encampment near Khan Yunis in southern Gaza and creating sand heaps near the border fence to protect demonstrators from Israeli fire.