Hamas has rejected an Egyptian request to halt the weekly demonstrations along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, Palestinian sources said on Saturday.
The sources said the Egyptian intelligence officials who met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City last Thursday also demanded that the protesters stay at least 500 meters away from the border. However, Hamas also rejected this demand, the sources told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.
But it did appear to have called for restrained action at Friday’s weekly demonstration, which left the IDF and Hamas in a tense standoff, but failed to ignite a major escalation.
The weekend events were expected to have a significant impact on whether Israel would launch a military operation in Gaza. But the low level of activity kept the situation’s status quo.
On Friday, 10,000 Palestinians again demonstrated near the border, burning tires and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at IDF troops. There were three attempted infiltrations, in which Palestinians crossed into Israel and then went back to Gaza, the IDF said.
Sources in the Gaza Strip said approximately 130 Palestinians were injured by gunfire and tear-gas inhalation.
On Saturday evening, an IDF aircraft struck a cell of Palestinians that had launched incendiary aerial devices from the southern Gaza Strip into Israel that morning, which had ignited fires in the Be’eri and Shokeda forests near the border. The IAF on Friday afternoon also attacked a terrorist squad that launched incendiary devices into Israel.
Several Palestinians who were at the demonstration commented that the number of demonstrators was smaller than in previous weeks, which had seen 30,000 protesters at the Friday event.
They also pointed out that the protesters dispersed earlier than usual, raising speculation about a possible secret deal between Hamas and Egypt.
“The Egyptians made it clear to Hamas that Israel was this time more serious than ever and would use unprecedented force if the violence continues along the border,” said a Palestinian political analyst in the Gaza Strip. “Apparently, Hamas issued instructions to its supporters to keep a low profile.”
The IDF also said it noticed that in several places Hamas forces restrained protesters and distanced them from the security fence.
Shortly before the protests began, the organizers of the “Great March of Return
" (the name Palestinians use to call the protests that began March 30) urged Palestinians to “maintain the peaceful and popular” nature of the demonstrations.
Taher a-Nunu, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, said the weekly demonstrations will continue, but only in a “peaceful and popular” manner. He denied that Egypt had asked Hamas to stop the protests.
Early Friday, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov called on all sides to refrain from violence.
“In light of today’s planned Gaza march, I urge all to exercise restraint, to proceed in a peaceful manner, and to avoid escalation. The UN is working with Egypt and its partners to avoid violence, address all humanitarian issues and support reconciliation,” he said.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had said that if Friday passed without any violence he would consider reopening two land crossings into Gaza: the pedestrian one at Erez and the commercial one at Kerem Shalom.
Israel closed those crossings, which are two of the three main arteries into Gaza, on Wednesday in response Gaza violence. As of Saturday night, the two crossings remained closed.
Meanwhile, a source close to Hamas said that Gen. Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Service), may visit the Gaza Strip and Ramallah next week as part of Cairo's ongoing effort to achieve a truce
between Gaza-based terrorist groups and Israel. Kamel is also hoping to persuade Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction to resolve their dispute, and agree to the formation of a national unity government, the source added.
Kamel’s scheduled visit to Ramallah and the Gaza Strip last week was canceled after two Grad rockets were launched at Israel on Wednesday. One of the rockets fell near a house in Beersheba, while the second fell into the Mediterranean Sea south of Tel Aviv.
The Egyptian intelligence officials who did meet with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip last Thursday later traveled to Ramallah, where they held talks with senior Fatah officials.
After the talks in Ramallah, Fatah officials launched a scathing attack on Hamas and accused it of holding the residents of the Gaza Strip hostage. They also accused Hamas of thwarting Egypt’s effort to end the Hamas-Fatah rift.
Fatah spokesman Atef Abu Seif said Hamas was seeking a truce deal with Israel instead of ending the power struggle with Fatah. Abu Seif accused Hamas of “paving the way for the US administration and Israel to pass” US President Donald Trump’s unseen plan for peace in the Middle East, which the US administration has called the “deal of the century.”
The Fatah spokesman claimed that Hamas has hijacked the weekly demonstrations along the border with the Gaza Strip in order to serve its own interests and conduct negotiations with Israel about a truce.
Majed Fityani, secretary-general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, said Hamas had become a “front for a demonic alliance led by the US administration and Israel, whose goal is to undermine the Palestinian national project and preserve the occupation.”
Fityani told the PA’s Voice of Palestine radio station that Hamas was seeking to further separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Hamas and Israel, he charged, have a common interest in maintaining the status quo in Gaza.
Responding to the Fatah charges, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the attacks reflected Fatah’s concern over Hamas’s success in “restoring the momentum to the Palestinian cause.” Fatah, he said, has lost its credibility because of its adherence to security coordination with Israel in the West Bank.
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