Contentious week in Gaza raises specter of violence in Friday's protests
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File
Israel is bracing for potential violence from the Gaza Strip today in the weekly Great March of Return protests following a contentious week that saw the Palestinian Authority (PA) withdraw from the Egyptian border crossing and Israel’s stalling of Qatari funds into the enclave.
On Tuesday, the organizing body behind Gaza’s “March of Return and Breaking of the Siege” protests called for renewed escalation in the weekly Friday demonstrations along the border.
According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, Hamas has increased funding to their incendiary balloon units, which have launched balloon attacks into Israeli territory since the protests began. The same report also alleged that funding had been increased for the unit responsible for launching flaming tires along the security fence.
However, according to sources familiar with the unit, the protest's organizers on Friday worked to prevent the tire units from bringing tires to hotspots along the Gaza fence.
The unconfirmed report alleges that the move comes as a result of the meeting with the Egyptian delegation on Thursday, who will continue to be in the Gaza Strip during the protest's on Friday.
In order not to anger the Egyptians and jeopardize the reconciliation process, the protest's organizers are allegedly taking steps to temper the day's demonstrations, including vowing to punish anyone who disobeys their order by bringing tires to the event.
On Sunday, the Rafah border crossing was partially closed off by Egypt after forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas withdrew from their post, accusing rivals Hamas of interference.
The PA claimed that the Gaza’s ruling Hamas group was “summoning, arresting and abusing our employees” in the strip, according to official Palestinian news agency Wafa ahead of the Fatah’s celebration of its 54th anniversary this week, with protests and demonstrations planned throughout the Strip.
On the Israeli front, a brief escalation of violence erupted after a rocket launched by Gaza into Israeli territory on Monday reportedly led the Israeli government to delay the third installment of $15 million of Qatari funds to the enclave. Though contradictory reports say the delay was due to other factors unrelated to the rocket.
Monday’s rocket fire towards the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon came in response to Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets in the strip, which were in turn a response to an incendiary balloon that had landed in Israel.
An Egyptian security delegation visited Gaza on Thursday, meeting with senior Hamas officials including its politburo head Ismail Haniyeh in an effort to promote quiet on the border and reconciliation between the factions.
Israel and Egypt, which effectively control the flow of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, have expressed worries about the consequences of the deepening rift between Palestinian factions on the coastal enclave.
Reports in the Palestinian and Israeli press said on Thursday that Israeli officials had contacted their Egyptian counterparts, fearing a continued stranglehold on the strip would have violent repercussions.
Khalil al-Hayya, deputy head of Hamas, told journalists the Egyptians "assured us that there will be no changes at the Rafah border and it will stay open".
Hayya said he expected that all sides would also stick to an informal truce agreement with Israel.
It was not immediately clear when the crossing would fully reopen.
Hamas employees retook the post on Monday in what they said was an attempt to maintain border control after the shock PA withdrawal.
Separately on Thursday, a senior Hamas official announced Haniyeh had put on hold a planned trip to Russia.
The Great March of Return protests have claimed the lives of some 250 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers, though the border has been relatively quiet in recent weeks.
The protests often turn violent, with Palestinians launching explosive balloons from Gaza towards Israel, causing great damage to fields adjacent to the border, as well as damaging the security fence and throwing explosive devices at Israelis soldiers.
In November, Hamas and Israel agreed on a ceasefire after a major flareup which later saw Avigdor Lieberman resign as Israel's defense minister. Liberman accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being soft on the Islamist group.
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