March of Return Protest at Gaza Border Dwindles Down; Israeli Army Says Hamas 'Exercised Restraint'

Three 17-year-old Palestinians killed by live Israeli fire, Gaza's Health Ministry says ■ Violence remains contained after Israel and Palestinians reach tentative understandings

Palestinians take part in a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters gathered along the border between Israel and Gaza in a mass protest to mark the one-year anniversary of the weekly weekend demonstrations

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Three 17-year-old demonstrators died after being shot by live Israeli fire, Gaza's Health Ministry said. Adham Amara died after he was shot in the face. Tamer Abu Al-Kheir and Bilal Al-Najar died after being shot in a protest east of Khan Younes. 

The Health Ministry in Gaza reported that over 300 people were wounded and referred to hospitals. At least 60 people were wounded by live Israeli fire, five of them are in critical condition and nine are in serious condition.

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According to the Israeli military, Palestinians are hurled explosive devices and hand grenades toward the border fence, prompting soldiers to respond by using live fire and riot dispersal means. 

A masked Palestinian boy reacts to tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City March 30, 2019.

The bigger protests took place in eastern Gaza and east of the city of Jabalia, Palestinian reports have indicated.

Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen Ronen Manelis said that the anniversary protest was remarkably restrained: "The restraint Hamas exercised today was such that we hadn't seen over the past year. There were hundreds of Hamas personnel who wore orange vests and prevented demonstrators from reaching the [border] fence. This shows that Hamas are the ones to control the events and they are the ones who determine how heated the protests will be."

Manelis also said that Israeli army strikes in Gaza earlier in the week in reaction to rocket fire from the Strip "led Hamas to understand that we don't accept such incidents and we don't just move on after they happen."

The spokesperson also noted that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi held a situation assessment with senior Israel Defense Forces commanders and that the army is prepared for any scenario, but that "it seems that this event is about to end."

He added that at that moment there were 500 protesters at the border, while at the height of the event 41,000 protesters demonstrated in five central locations. 

A senior Israeli official echoed Manelis' remarks, saying that "as a result of Israeli policy, which includes forceful strikes by the Israeli Air Force, firm warnings that were conveyed to Hamas and extensive preparation of the military which was instructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the border-fence events passed relatively quietly."

The official noted that Israelis were pleased by Egyptian attempts to quell the tensions. 

Gaza border protest, March 30, 2019.

In Gaza, reports emerged that the Egyptian diplomatic delegation that has been shuttling between Israel and Gaza over the past weeks in an attempt to help cultivate understandings between the two parties held a meeting with Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar in order to draw conclusions from the protest.

The protest also coincided with the annual commemoration of Land Day, a day Palestinians have been observing since 1976, when Israeli security forces shot dead six Israeli Arabs who were protesting the expropriation of Arab-owned land in northern Israel to build Jewish communities.

Two thousand people were reported to be protesting in the Israeli-Arab city of Sakhnin. Ayman Odeh, Chairman of Hadash party, said at the gathering, "Gaza is under siege. The humanitarian crisis is worsening and the Palestinian people have a right to claim their place in the world." He said that the people of Gaza cannot be broken and no weapon can solve the situation, adding that racism and incitement against Arab citizens is growing under Netanyahu's government. 

'Think twice before you act violently'

Land Day protest in Sakhnin, Israel, March 30, 2019.

The violence at the border appeared to be contained at the moment. The Israeli army attributed the relative calm to the fact that hundreds of Hamas-affiliated personnel were stationed at the scene and prevented demonstrations from getting too close to the border fence. 

Most protesters were gathered in large tents deep inside Palestinian territory. 

As part of understandings reached between Israel and the Palestinians through Egyptian mediation on Friday, Palestinians refrained from setting ablaze car tires at the protest sites. Israel coneyed to the Palestinians earlier Saturday that if they set tires on fire, Israeli snipers will be ordered to increase their use of live fire. 

Yahya Sinwar and politubro chief Ismail Haniyeh were in the area of the border fence, where they arrived Saturday to closely follow the protests. They were joined by an Egyptian delegation of defense officials.

Sinwar said that "the occupation is being tested" and that the conduct of Gaza factions in relation to Israel will be different this year. "The Palestinian people are not giving up their right of return despite the yielding of certain losers or those who are in coordination and normalization with Israel," he said, referring to the security coordination of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and increasing diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries. 

Meanwhile, Gaza's Health Ministry reported Saturday morning that a 21-year-old Palestinian who was hit overnight by live Israeli fire east of Gaza City died of his wounds. According to the ministry, Mohammed Jihad Saad, who lived in Gaza, was hit in the head during a protest that took place close to the border fence. 

A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

The Israeli military's spokesperson for Arabic media , Lt. Col. Avichai Adaree, penned a Facebook post Saturday morning in which he called on Gazans to restrain themselves at the demonstrations.

"According to Palestinian reports," he wrote, "if you don't act violently today and refrain from taking terrorist measures, significant steps will be taken that could improve many aspects of civilian life in the Gaza Strip. Think twice before you act violently. Israel is determined to defend its civilians and its sovereignty." 

Overnight Friday, senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhla met in Beirut. The two issued a statement following their meeting that read: "Any aggression toward protesters of the March of Return today along the border fence will be met with an appropriate response and the military branches of both movements have coordinated on this matter." 

People carry the body of a Palestinian who was killed at the Israel-Gaza border, at a hospital in Gaza City, March 30, 2019.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Despite these threats, current assessments predict that the protests will not get out of hand and that understandings reached between Israel and Hamas on Friday will be preserved. 

A senior member of one of the Palestinian factions who is familiar with details of the negotiations told Haaretz that the Palestinians have agreed to keep demonstrators away from the border and that Israel, in return, has agreed to limit use of live fire and to refrain from hurting civilians. 

Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official and deputy of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, said Friday that the two sides will decide on a time frame to make good on the mutual understandings sometime early next week. 

On Friday, only a few hundreds of Palestinians protested by the border fence. Gaza's Health Ministry said that eight Palestinians were wounded by live fire and that one of them hit in the stomach and in serious condition. 

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the protests started, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures, and an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper

On Thursday, the organizing committee for the Great March of Return called on demonstrators to "not give Israeli snipers an opportunity to hit them," in an apparent attempt to cool tensions ahead of the weekend. The Israeli military has sent additional troops to the area in anticipation of the large turnout.