Major protests to test Israel-Gaza calm ahead of elections

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


Thousands of Palestinians are expected to gather along the Israel-Gaza border Saturday for protests that could severely test a fragile calm between the Jewish state and the Strip's Islamist rulers Hamas.

They mark the first anniversary of the often violent weekly border demonstrations in which around 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed.

They also come just 10 days before parliamentary elections in Israel.

Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a stiff challenge from a centrist former military chief and wants to avoid accusations of being soft on Hamas.

Late Friday, Hamas officials said a deal had been reached that would see the protestors remain calm and refrain from approaching the fence, in exchange for Israeli concessions.

But there was no confirmation from Israel and it was unclear to what extent the group can control the protests.

While demonstrations have taken place at least weekly since March last year, Hamas has been building up the anniversary protests for several months.

The group's leader Ismail Haniya has called for a million people to gather in five protest sites, and mosques in Gaza late Friday used loudspeakers to encourage attendance.

The protests peaked in May, when Israeli forces shot dead at least 62 Palestinians in one day in clashes marking the transfer of the US embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.

- Crammed in -

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

Analysts highlight the desperate conditions and lack of freedom of movement as a driving factor behind the weekly protests.

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

The UN says more than 90 percent of the water is unsafe for drinking and residents receive less than 12 hours of mains electricity a day.

While the protests were initially largely peaceful, they have become more violent as Hamas has appeared to exert increasing control.

Demonstrators burn tyres, throw projectiles and rocks and even approach and try to damage the Israeli border fence.

Small groups have also attached incendiary devices to balloons before floating them over the border in an attempt to set fire to neighbouring Israeli farmland and towns.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to contain Hamas, and the army has increased its presence along the border in recent days.

Several thousand troops, including dozens of snipers, are positioned in various locations along the border.

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

- Risky game -

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008 and analysts say a fourth round remains likely.

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.

Hamas officials said Friday that Egypt had brokered an agreement whereby the marches would remain peaceful if Israel agreed to allow more Qatari aid into the strip and eased its economic blockade.

Israeli officials declined to comment.

Fears remain that serious violence could provoke Netanyahu into a reaction.

Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said Hamas was trying to use the protests to get concessions from Israel.

"Hamas seems to think that the run up to Israeli elections, and Netanyahu's desire to maintain calm in Gaza, has given it increased leverage," he said.

"But as we have seen with Israel's military buildup along the Gaza border, this could be a risky strategy."

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

At the border fence Thursday, a few dozen young men stood looking at the heavily fortified border.

Tareq al-Ghuz, 18, said he has attended protests every week since they began. He showed videos of himself trying to breach the Israeli border, saying he had been shot once in the leg.

Several of his friends had been killed, he said, but he and others felt they 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't control us."