Tel Aviv/Jerusalem: Thousands of Palestinians flocked on Friday to a sit-in near Gaza’s border with Israel, launching a six-week protest that Hamas organizers say will be peaceful and that Israel fears will become a mass attempt to breach its territory.
Hamas has planned daily protests against Israel and the Palestinian displacement surrounding the 1948 creation of the Jewish state. The demonstrations began on Friday with tent encampments set up a half-mile from Gaza’s 25-mile (40-kilometer) frontier with Israel, an effort to dramatize the Palestinians’ story as refugees. The climax is to come in mid-May with a march to the border fence aimed at attracting 100,000 people.
One Palestinian was killed early Friday when an Israeli tank shelled a group of people who approached the fence and were engaged in what the Israeli army called “suspicious behaviour." The army said about 200 Palestinians took part in violent protests at various spots along the border, lighting fires and throwing rocks, and soldiers fired at a group of people trying to tear down parts of the fence. Palestinians said five people were injured on Friday morning.
The protests come amid growing tensions over President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as a yet-to-be-released US peace plan that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has already pledged to reject. Abbas severed all official Palestinian contact with the White House in December after Trump announced plans to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Violence against Israel has surged in recent weeks. Palestinians, who demand the eastern part of Jerusalem as their own capital, have been storming the Gaza fence and planting bombs targeting Israeli soldiers, drawing retaliatory fire and airstrikes. Palestinians broke through the fence on at least four occasions this week, including one case when an armed group crossed more than 10 miles into Israeli territory before being apprehended. At least five Israelis have been killed in stabbing and car-ramming attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent weeks.
Jason Greenblatt, who is helping spearhead the US peace effort, accused Hamas of instigating a “hostile march" intended to spark a confrontation.
“Hamas should focus instead of desperately needed improvements to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza instead of inciting violence against Israel that only increases hardship & undermines chances for peace," Greenblatt tweeted.
The Gaza protests correspond with red-letter dates on the Palestinian calendar. Friday is “Land Day," marking the 1976 killing of six Arab citizens by Israeli security forces during violent demonstrations against land expropriations. It also marks the beginning of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday.
The main march to the fence on 15 May will commemorate the Palestinian “Nakba," or the catastrophe of their displacement upon Israel’s founding. It takes place a day after the new US embassy in Jerusalem is slated to open, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month that often sees a surge in Palestinian attacks, also is anticipated to begin 15 May.
Israel is bolstering its border forces in anticipation of violence, experimenting with new forms of crowd control that include drones that spray tear gas. Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman warned on Friday that any Palestinian who approached the fence as part of the protest was putting his life in danger, and blamed Hamas for any casualties.
“Don’t test us," Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said in a 27 March Twitter message addressing the Palestinians. “We are addressing the challenges in the Strip in a serious way, we’re prepared for them and we will do everything to make sure that Israeli citizens can calmly sit at their Passover tables." Bloomberg