x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palestinians plan border protests today

Rallies are being organised for today that plan to emulate those held on May 15, when thousands of unarmed Palestinians, many of them refugees or their descendents, stormed Israel's borders from Lebanon and Syria and staged protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


JERUSALEM // Israel is bracing itself for another round of mass demonstrations today by Palestinian activists in the occupied territories and surrounding countries.

The rallies are being organised via social-media websites and plan to emulate those held on May 15, when thousands of unarmed Palestinians, many of them refugees or their descendents, stormed Israel's borders from Lebanon and Syria and staged protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least eleven people and injured scores more among the hundreds marching on the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

The Israeli military's chief of staff, Benny Gantz, said on Thursday that military would be in place for today's demonstrations.

"We are preparing on all possible fronts and we will position both command and troops at forward positions," the Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Mr Gantz as saying.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Thursday that the military would "act with restraint, but with the necessary decisiveness to protect our borders, our communities and our citizens".

The demonstrations mark the anniversary of Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian-claimed Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in June of that year.

Activists are emphasising the right of Palestinian refugees to return to cities and villages that fall within Israel's internationally recognised boundaries. Many in Israel regard influxes of refugees to their former homes inside the country's boundaries before to the 1967 war as an existential threat, potentially undermining the country's Jewish character.

"We have proved [during the] marches [on] the fifteenth of May that a return is possible, and that the myth of Israel's strength is only a big lie…" a group of primarily Gazan activists wrote in a statement posted on Facebook on May 19.

Syrian authorities are preparing to bus in scores of the country's Palestinian residents to the border today, while Palestinians in the West Bank are organising rallies, including a mass prayer, at the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem.

In Gaza, youth organisers of protests held in March to demand Palestinian political unity have called Sunday to be a "day of rage".

Palestinian groups in Lebanon had been preparing the join the demonstration along the border with Israel, but cancelled plans late last week amid pressure from Lebanese authorities.

Instead, a general strike has been called for today by leaders from the country's 12 Palestinian refugee camps, where rallies are also expected to take place.

A coalition of groups that had been organising the march to the Israeli border were forced to scrap plans when the Lebanese army announced late last week that it would prevent protesters from reaching the area.

Local media reported that the Lebanese army declared areas adjacent to the border a closed military zone, purportedly to avoid a confrontation similar to the one on May 15 with the Israeli army.

Still, with many activists unhappy with the decision to cancel the march that had been due to take place today, there were reports yesterday that some may try to defy the ban and attempt to get as far south towards the border as possible. Adding to the confusion were statements from some Palestinian factions in Lebanon contending that the march had not been cancelled, but simply postponed.

On Thursday, Voice of Israel radio reported that Israel had warned neighbouring countries and Palestinian officials that it would not tolerate a repeat of last month's border incursions.

Egypt also unexpectedly closed the Rafah border crossing in Gaza yesterday, just a week after the country's transitional government significantly eased restrictions at the crossing point.

Crowds of Palestinians were reported to have gathered at the Rafah crossing yesterday, only to be met by locked gates on the Egyptian side.

While its scaled-down border restrictions symbolise a turn toward a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy, Egypt also appears wary of further antogonising Israel, which has imposed a blockade on Gaza to punish the Palestinian territory's Hamas rulers.





Zoi Constantine contributed to this report from Beirut.