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Israel deploys 100 sharpshooters on Gaza border for Palestinian protests — Israeli army chief

Move comes ahead of six-week demonstrations calling for right of return of Palestinian refugees

By Reuters - Mar 29,2018 - Last updated at Mar 29,2018

A man hangs a Palestinian flag at an electric pole near the border with Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday (Reuters photo)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/GAZA —Israeli forces have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters on the Gaza border ahead of a planned mass Palestinian demonstration, Israel's top general said in an interview published on Wednesday.

Organisers said they expect thousands in Gaza, including entire families, to answer their call to gather in tent cities in five locations along the sensitive border from Friday in a six-week protest for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. 

Citing security concerns, the Israeli military enforces a "no go" zone for Palestinians on land in Gaza adjacent to Israel's border fence.

Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, the military's chief of staff, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that the military would not allow "mass infiltration" or tolerate damage to the barrier during the protests.

"We have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters who were called up from all of the military's units, primarily from the special forces," Eizenkot said in the interview. "If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire." 

Israeli soldiers are confronted by frequent Palestinian protests along the Gaza border and have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against demonstrators who the military said hurled rocks or petrol bombs at them.

Organisers said the protest is supported by several Palestinian factions, including Gaza's dominant Hamas resistance movement, which is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel”. 

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called on all sides "to exercise restraint and take the necessary steps to avoid a violent escalation".

In a statement emailed to Reuters, he said: "Children in particular should not be put at risk at any time by anyone."

 

Rising tension

 

Israeli Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, speaking on Israel Radio, said Hamas had avoided direct conflict with Israel since the end of the 2014 Gaza war.

But he said that pressure Hamas was now feeling from Israel's destruction of some of its network of attack tunnels near the border, coupled with harsh economic conditions in Gaza, were "a formula for rising tension".

The start of the demonstration was symbolically linked to what Palestinians call "Land Day", which commemorates the six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces in demonstrations in 1976 over land confiscations. The week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, when Israel heightens security, also begins on Friday.

The protest is due to end on May 15, the day Palestinians call the "Nakba" or "Catastrophe", marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the “creation of Israel” in 1948.

Palestinians have long demanded that as many as 5 million of their compatriots be granted the right to return. Israel rules this out, fearing an influx of Arabs that would eliminate its Jewish majority. Israel argues the refugees should resettle in a future state that the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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