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Gaza, Israel brace for mass border demos

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Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Palestinians in Gaza are expected to gather in huge numbers along the barrier separating them from Israel on Saturday, testing a fragile ceasefire only days after a major flareup.

The demonstrations mark the first anniversary of deadly protests on the border with Israel.

Days of negotiations have raised hopes that the bloodshed seen in previous mass protests, particularly those against the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem last May, can be avoided.

Demonstrators are calling to be allowed to return to homes their families fled in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, now inside the Jewish state.

The return of Palestinian refugees was enshrined in a 1948 UN Security Council resolution, but Israel argues that it would mean the end of the Jewish state.

Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, who have fought three wars with Israel since 2008, have called for a million people to join the demonstrations Saturday at different points along the border.

Two million Palestinians live in impoverished Gaza, crammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Israel has maintained a crippling blockade of the Strip for more than a decade, and Egypt often closes its Gaza frontier, the enclave's only other land border.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to contain Hamas, which does not recognise it.

Ahead of the anniversary, Israel has reinforced the border fence in many places.

It has also boosted its forces, with several thousand troops stationed along the border. Dozens of snipers are positioned in various locations.

An AFP journalist saw tanks pre-positioned near Nahal Oz close to northern Gaza.

- Negotiations -

On Monday, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a house north of the Israeli commercial capital Tel Aviv, injuring seven people.

In response, the Israeli military struck dozens of Hamas sites in Gaza until a ceasefire was reached.

A security delegation from Egypt, the go-to mediator between Hamas and Israel, has since shuttled between the two sides to head off a new escalation.

On Friday, Hamas officials told AFP they backed an Egyptian proposal to maintain calm during Saturday's protests.

The agreement could see Israel ease its blockade of the Strip in exchange for calm, with protesters kept at a distance from the border fence.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said the talks covered a ceasefire, increasing humanitarian aid and improving the economic situation in Gaza.

There was no word from the Israeli side.

Jamie McGoldrick, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, spoke of positive signals from all parties and said he was "quietly hopeful".

"People are saying ok we want demonstrations... but we don't want people to put themselves in situations of violence and find themselves close to the fence," he told AFP.

"All signals and signs look like it is not going to be a heavily violent situation. Obviously that can change with an incident, an accident or a technical issue."

At the border fence, Tareq al-Ghuz, 18, said he has attended every week since the protests began and showed a picture on his phone of a friend who he said had been shot in the eye and died.

Looking out at a newly fortified Israeli fence, he said he and his friends were unemployed and had little to lose.

"There is no work for young people, we are besieged from the sea, from the south to the east, wherever we go we are blockaded," he said.

Asked whether he would stay away from the fence Saturday as requested by organisers, he laughed.

"Every week they say that. They don?' control us," he said.

- Embassy peak -

At the weekly protests, demonstrators have burned tires, thrown projectiles and rocks and even approached and tried to damage the Israeli border fence.

Since March 30, 2018, at least 258 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire, the vast majority along the border. Two Israeli soldiers were killed.

The protests culminated on May 14, 2018, with huge demonstrations against the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It led to split-screen coverage of the embassy opening ceremony in Jerusalem, attended by President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, alongside bloodshed in Gaza.

At least 62 Palestinians were killed that day by Israeli gunfire, with hundreds wounded.

Israel says it is only defending its border, and accuses Hamas of orchestrating the demonstrations to deflect pressure from internal dissent.

Palestinians and human rights organisations accuse Israel of excessive use of force.

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