As Israel braces for border clashes, Palestinian militants call for nonviolent protests
As Israel's army geared up for a return to brutal clashes along the Gaza border on Friday, Palestinian militants called on its people to demonstrate peacefully as a return to violence threatened to plunge the region into an all-out war.
“The most important message tomorrow is the masses gathering in a peaceful manner,” Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group and an organizer of the march, wrote in a statement on Thursday evening.
“The March of Return is continuing until its goals are attained, with an emphasis on the importance of holding marches that will be non-violent and led by the people,” he wrote.
The high-stakes nature of today’s demonstrations are set to provide a much-needed litmus test for Israel in its bid to seek a balance between quelling violence and avoiding an all-out war.
Israel has repeatedly demanded an end to the weekly protests dubbed the “Great March of Return” that have been ongoing consecutively since March 30.
Rhetoric on both sides has intensified since the latest flare up on Wednesday that saw two rockets fired from the Palestinian enclave towards Israeli territory. One landed in the courtyard of a private home in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, causing serious damage but no injuries and a second landed in the Mediterranean Sea close to Tel Aviv.
In response Israeli jets launched air raids on some 20 “terror targets” including a cross-border attack tunnel. One Palestinian man was killed during the retaliation.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) quickly distanced themselves from the attack, blaming the rocket fire on rogue jihadists groups in the Strip attempting to undermine Egyptian mediation efforts and called it “irresponsible.” Hamas even pledged to undertake a full investigation into the incident, in an apparent bid to calm new fears of war.
It was decided, following a five-hour long security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would boost its military presence along its southern border but would refrain from declaring war with its southern neighbors. Haaretz reported that this was in a bid to wait for Egypt-led efforts to negotiate a long-term ceasefire pan out.
However, the military buildup was quickly visible -- a break away from former policy that is often characterized by cover mobilization -- on Thursday as tanks, artillery and engineering troops gathered along the border.
Israeli soldiers were given directives to fire at Gazans from a farther distance than current regulations allows as well as permitting them to respond more forcefully to incendiary balloons expected to be launched.
Ministers have urged the IDF to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to rioting along the border, Hebrew-media reported.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned a day earlier that “Israel will act with great force” if the attacks did not cease.
A member of the organizing committee of the Gazan marches, Daoud Shehan said on Friday that officials were encouraging people to stay away from the border fence but he added that he was unsure to what extent they would succeed in “restraining the public mood,” the Times of Israel reported.
“There will be attempts to prevent them from approaching the fence. There might be a reduction of balloons,” he continued echoing calls by al-Batsh. “We hope there will be no human losses tomorrow. We are giving a chance to the Egyptian efforts,” he ended, appearing to echo the Israeli approach.
In seeming contradiction to Hamas disavowal of the rocket incident, the groups armed wing known as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades released a Hebrew video message on Thursday threatening Israel against making a “mistake.” In the broadcast, asked members of the militant group are shown purportedly preparing to launch advanced rockets and urging Palestinians to join the violent demonstrations on the border.
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov warned Thursday that “we remain on the brink of another potentially devastating conflict, a conflict that nobody claims to want, but a conflict that needs much more than just words to prevent.”
"Gaza is imploding. This is not hyperbole. This is not alarmism. It is a reality," Mladenov told the council.
Egypt has also reportedly warned Hamas that a renewal of violence along the border would trigger a heavy Israeli retaliation.
Meanwhile on Thursday amid escalating tensions, a delegation of Egyptian intelligence officials pressed ahead with mediation efforts and met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh before returning to Israel. Spy chief Abbas Kamel was absent from the discussion after he postponed his visit due to the spike in violence.
Attempts to reignite talks follows on from previous efforts by Egypt to negotiate a long term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and bring much-needed humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza. Talks recently lost momentum, with Cairo instead turning its focus towards intra-Palestinian reconciliation.
Israel and Hamas have been brought to the brink of full-scale war on multiple occasions in the past months as the clashes have escalated to rocket bombardments by Palestinian militant factions and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
At least 205 Palestinians have been killed since protests and clashes erupted along the border in late March, with at least 50 of those killed identified as members of Hamas. One Israeli soldier has been killed by Hamas sniper fire in that time.
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