Gaza human chain a few links short

Only 5,000 show up at demo; thousands of soldiers idle as fears of border breach prove unfounded.

soldiers paint 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
soldiers paint 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Dire predictions for a Rafah-style run on the Erez Crossing fizzled out Monday along with Hamas hopes for a publicity coup as dreary weather combined with what appeared to be a simple lack of motivation on the Palestinian side to participate in the "human chain across Gaza" demonstration. In the hours following what one officer termed "the march that wasn't," security forces reduced their level of alert Monday evening, believing that Hamas's motivation to try another such event in the near future had been weakened. After the event, Palestinian media reported that 20,000 people had participated in the demonstration, half the anticipated number. In Beit Hanun, a city of 32,000, approximately 5,000 Palestinians turned out to form their part of a human chain - but the numbers throughout the Gaza Strip were insufficient to connect the chain's different links. At one point, Palestinians said, some 2,000 hard-liners marched to a point several kilometers away from the Erez Crossing, but Hamas police blocked the main road leading to Erez and called on the protesters to obey the law. A massive force of some 6,500 police officers was deployed along the Gaza perimeter, backing up a reinforced IDF presence to provide coverage in the event that any of the protesters did attempt to break through the Gaza security fence. From Monday morning onward, hundreds of police officers from Southern District stations joined police special forces units in drilling crowd control maneuvers and even practicing scenarios in which an out-of-control Palestinian mob opened fire at Israeli security forces as its members crossed the border. Early Monday morning, dozens of troops from the Givati Brigade were training in Moshav Netiv Ha'asara - seen as a possible infiltration point due to its proximity to the security fence. Residents woke up to Givati soldiers simulating rocket raids, situations that would require them to take cover, a possible encounter with a terrorist and other possible developments the IDF had considered. "We are prepared for any scenario, but we hope it won't develop into anything beyond a simple demonstration," IDF deputy spokesman Col. Ze'ev Sharoni told The Jerusalem Post in the hours before the protest. "The IDF is deployed in the field and will do anything to prevent Palestinian demonstrators from crossing into Israel." Sharoni emphasized that - contrary to reports issued Sunday evening - troops had not received orders to shoot Palestinians that might try to infiltrate Israel. But Netiv Ha'asara security chief Gil Tassa said that "the IDF didn't brief us [about] today's march, and as far as we're concerned, nothing special is happening." Security forces were not the only ones on high alert Monday morning - convoys of Israeli and foreign media made their way southward and filled parking lots and nature reserves at every point from which they could get a view of the security fence. That, said incoming Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, was the ultimate goal of the Gaza protest. "The fight today is over the public's opinion. The graphic truth is that the picture allegedly speaks for itself once you put a soldier next to a [Palestinian] child, and this is what Hamas is trying to do today," said Palmor. But that picture never presented itself. Instead, both foreign and local film crews packed their bags early, with some trading shots of Beit Hanun for pictures of a Kassam strike in Sderot less than two hours later. The upped alert level vanished with the journalists, and police officers and IDF troops were recalled to their routine duties.