With a violent week behind it, Israel’s security establishment is bracing for thousands of Palestinians to riot this weekend across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, marking Land Day and the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return demonstrations along the Gaza front.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on “our Palestinian people in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and abroad to participate in Land Day [March 30] and take part in the million-man march.”
Land Day commemorates the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976. Six unarmed citizens were killed and hundreds wounded and arrested in the ensuing riots and confrontations with the IDF and police.
Last year on Land Day, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began their Great March of Return with thousands of Gazans violently demonstrating along the security fence with Israel, demanding an end to the 12-year-long blockade of the coastal enclave.
Close to 300 Gazans have been killed in the past year, including women and children as well as medics and journalists.
In late January, an IDF officer was lightly wounded after he was struck in his helmet by sniper fire along the Gaza Strip security fence, with PIJ claiming responsibility. The officer was struck near Kibbutz Kissufim, the same area where Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi was fatally shot in the chest by sniper fire. Levi was the first soldier killed along the Gaza front since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Another soldier was struck by sniper fire in the area less than a week after Levi was killed.
The reinforcement of IDF troops began on Monday, following the firing of a long-range rocket which destroyed a home in Moshav Mishmeret, some 120 km from where it was launched in Rafah.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi ordered the mobilization of a divisional brigade and three regular brigades, as well as the call up of additional reserve forces. He also canceled the exchange of IDF battalions in multiple regions that had been scheduled for later this week.
A quick drive to Israel’s South reveals the tanks and armored personnel carriers parked in fields close to the Gaza border waiting for the order to enter Gaza.
But the order to begin a ground operation never materialized. Instead a shaky ceasefire was reached.
But the IDF did not cancel the deployment of the extra troops. The army is anticipating an exceptionally violent weekend along the fence, not only on Friday when the usual riots take place, but also on Saturday when Palestinians will mark both the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return and Land Day.
On Wednesday, Kochavi visited the Gaza Division and met with Brig.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano, along with the head of the Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi.
“During the situational assessment, the chief of staff was briefed on the readiness of troops and for various scenarios, as well as on the readiness of the additional troops that arrived in the past few days,” the IDF said in a statement, adding that operational plans were also discussed.
The IDF is not ruling out any scenario for this upcoming weekend, including the breaching of the security fence by thousands of rioters and Hamas operatives who would try to abduct soldiers or civilians and bring them back inside the Hamas-run enclave.
As such, the IDF has also deployed additional snipers who have been stationed to defend against Gazan sniper fire and explosive devices thrown by Palestinians. Unmanned aerial devices with observation equipment and crowd control measures, as well as combat helicopters, have also been deployed.
During the violent weekly protests, Gazans have been burning tires and hurling stones and marbles, as well as other types of violence which include the throwing of grenades and improvised explosive devices (including military-grade explosives) towards troops. Ball bearings and other projectiles are also launched by high-velocity slingshots towards Israeli forces along the border.
In addition, mines and booby-trapped explosive devices with delayed detonation devices are also laid along the fence during the riots under the cover of smoke and crowds, and “pose a direct threat to the lives and safety of IDF forces operating in the border area,” the military said.
In response to the protests, the IDF has already “substantially” increased its forces deployed on the Gaza border and all troops have undergone “specially developed trainings designed to replicate the expected elements of the Gaza border events.” Israel has also stationed counter-terrorism forces in communities along the Gaza border in order to rapidly respond to any infiltration or military attacks.
The IDF has also deployed Iron Dome missile defense systems across the country should Gazan groups launch rockets towards Israel’s home front.
The IDF has also constructed sand berms to provide defenses for IDF forces along the border, and also dug long trenches and laid barbed wire behind these berms in an attempt to delay crowds and vehicles from reaching Israeli civilian communities following any large-scale infiltration.
The military is also currently developing a fortified vehicle that can shoot water at great distances. Once operational, it is expected these water cannons will help with riot control.
Kochavi – who was recently sworn in as the military’s top officer – has prioritized the southern front as one which could explode into war at any moment, and has visited the Southern Command dozens of times, where he’s met with senior officers and approved operational plans for war, including setting up a centralized administrative unit to prepare a list of potential targets in Gaza should war break out.
While the calm has held since Monday, the tinderbox remains highly combustible. All that is needed is a spark to ignite a conflagration.
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