Israeli security forces are bracing for clashes between the Israeli military and demonstrators during Nakba Day protests in Gaza on Wednesday, which thousands of Palestinians are expected to attend.
The Nakba, or "catastrophe," is the Palestinian term used to describe Israel’s founding and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs during the 1948 war. Nakba Day is generally observed by Palestinians on May 15, the day after the Gregorian calendar date of Israeli Independence Day, and is marked by wide-scale protests.
On Tuesday, the organizing committee of the Great March of Return in Gaza called on Palestinians to participate in Nakba Day demonstrations but called for restrained.
Beginning Wednesday afternoon, masses of protestors will converge on the committee's tents along the Gaza border fence, as they do for the weekly Friday protests. Committee members said the protests will be non-violent, and added that committee monitors will be deployed to prevent any mass movement toward the border fence with Israel.
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Israel anticipates that Hamas members will not allow the protests to spiral out of control, but are aware that the demonstrations serve the Palestinians' public relations interests, especially while European reporters are in Israel to cover the Eurovision Song Contest.
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The Israeli military is doing everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties, and has instructed soldiers to open fire only with the explicit permission of the Southern Command, unless they are in mortal danger, to prevent harming Hamas and Islamic Jihad members.
Last year’s Nakba Day protest merged with a demonstration against the U.S. embassy's move to Jerusalem. Out of the approximately 40,000 Palestinian protesters, 61 were killed and 1,200 injured in 12 locations along the Gaza border. With this in mind, the IDF is assessing the possibility of an escalation this year – which Hamas and Islamic Jihad will use for media attention, and fire rockets into Israel. The military has already deployed Iron Dome air defense systems throughout the country.
“We don’t want to give the Israeli military forces any excuse to hurt our young people, and we don’t want to increase tensions in the border region,” committee member Talal Abu Zarifa told Haaretz. The organizers also called for a general strike on Wednesday.
The Palestinian decision to restrain the protests is linked to the cease-fire deal struck between Palestinian factions and Israel earlier this month, which put an end to the most intense flare-up between Israel and the Strip in five years. As part of the deal, Israel opened Gaza crossings earlier in this week, and expanded Gaza's fishing zone to 12 nautical miles.
Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi and United Nations envoy Nikolay Mladenov held talks in Gaza this week with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh and other senior officials. Mladenov said Sunday that he "hopes all sides would do everything in their power" to preserve the calm, at least in the coming weeks, in order to complete all the planned projects. "We need cooperation from all sides – the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel – to work towards improving the lives of Gaza's civilians and for the hope for a better future for them."
Last week, after the last round of fighting in Gaza, senior IDF officials assessed that the broad airstrikes Israel carried out in the Strip will win them a few weeks of calm – and that there is a need for a complementary policy to guarantee long-term quiet.
The officials said that it is not within their power to guarantee that Hamas will follow the same calls for restraint, and will not disrupt Eurovision or fire rockets at Israel.
Within the intelligence community, the prevailing belief is that despite Islamic Jihad's participation in the cease-fire, if its members do not feel like they are receiving their fair share of funds and humanitarian aid coming into the Strip, they will not hesitate to attack.
A source close to Hamas told Haaretz that the financial agreements between Israel and the Palestinian factions have yet to be implemented in their entirety. Thus far, about 120,000 needy families have received $100 each, but there has been no decision yet to pay wages to Hamas officials who have not received their salaries in two months. After the two previous rounds of fighting, Hamas officials did receive their salaries as part of truce understandings. Gaza residents are now urging organization leaders via social media to pay officials’ wages by the end of May, at the close of the current month of Ramadan.