Some 10,000 Palestinians protested near the Gaza-Israel border fence on Friday, after organizers called on protesters to participate en masse despite a decision announced by Israel's security cabinet earlier this week that it would extend the army's firing range to prevent Palestinians from trying to infiltrate Israeli territory.
The Gaza Health Ministry reported 77 wounded by live fire, and an Israeli aircraft struck a group launching incendiary balloons.
Protesters crossed the fence into Israel three times, turning back in every case. Most protesters stood relatively far from the fence in contrast to previous weeks, mainly congregating hundreds of meters away in a possible sign that Hamas is attempting to avoid further escalation in violence. Defense officials said the protests were one of the most subdued in recent months.
Security establishment officials said Friday's protest has been the most subdued in months. Hamas operatives markedly prevented people from crossing the fence and acting in ways which would provoke an escalation. A small number of protesters approached the fence, with most staying behind in the tented area, which is several hundred yards from the border.
Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said on Friday, "The insistence of the Strip's residents to participate in protests is the best reaction to Israel's threats." These warnings, according to Barhoum, "motivate people to go out and protest at the border." Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, said of the protests that Israel left the citizens of Gaza only two choices – resist or die. He added, "The Palestinians decided to resist, because they don't want to die of hunger under the blockade."
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A senior official in one of the Palestinian factions in Gaza, who is currently holding talks with Hamas officials, told Haaretz that Hamas does not want to lose the trust it has built in Egypt and the cooperation it shares with the country, and therefore might opt to restrain the weekly violent protests at Israel's borders.
Hamas hasn't clarified if it would act to diminish the aggression or would rather encourage an escalation at the protests, which have been taking place every weekend for over six months.
Over the past several days, Hamas officials have been holding discussions with Egyptian intelligence officials who paid a visit to the Strip. According to the official, developments in those talks may also depend on the Israeli response to Friday's protest.
The Egyptian delegation has reportedly been putting pressure on Hamas leaders to lower the level of violence along the border fence and reduce incendiary kites and balloons launchings.
Palestinian sources in Gaza said the delegation passed on messages from Israel on the implications of the continued protests along the border and the attempts to break through the fence and enter Israel. At the same time, Hamas leaders made it clear that they cannot prevent the gatherings and protests for long if concrete steps are not taken to ease the blockade on Gaza.
The Egyptian delegation arrived in Ramallah on Thursday evening and met with senior Fatah leaders, including Majid Faraj, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service, and senior Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmad, who is responsible for the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
The PA released an announcement about the meeting, saying it was grateful for the Egyptian efforts to advance reconciliation, but declined to provide details about the meeting.
The escalation started early on Wednesday morning when a rocket launched from the Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. Another rocket landed in the sea near Israel's largest metropolitan area.
The military said it struck 20 targets in Gaza in response, including a Hamas attack tunnel in the southern Strip.