MEFALSIM, Israel – As Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump watch the plaque being unveiled at the new embassy in Jersualem on Monday, 50 miles away the Israeli army will be readying for its nightmare scenario: thousands of Palestians bursting through the fence with Gaza.
Demonstrations are planned across the Palestinian territories to protest the U.S. decision to shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s capital, seen as a major blow to the Palestinian cause.
But they are expected to be largest in Gaza, where six weeks of demonstrations dubbed the “March of Return” will reach a climax this week. Israeli snipers have already killed at least 49 Palestinians in the unrest at the fence, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and shot 2,240 more.
“We really believe that’s what they will do, the motivation is very, very big,” an Israeli army official from the southern command said of the potential for demonstrators to break through the fence as he drove an armored Land Rover along it during demonstrations Friday. He pointed out fresh rolls of barbed wire, ready for areas perceived as weak spots.
The embassy move has added extra friction to what was already a highly charged week. Scuffles broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City Sunday Israelis celebrated the “reunification” of the city, an annexation not recongized internationally. The opening of the embassy on Monday is followed by Nakba Day – when Palestinians mark the anniversary of mass expulsions and flight that displaced an estimated 700,000 people when Israel was founded 70 years ago.
This year organizers of demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank are spreading them over two days to coincide with the embassy opening.
But Israel is not letting the threat of violence dull its party. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs gathered 1,000 guests for a celebratory event on the ministry grounds on Sunday. Among them were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
“President Trump is making history,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rounds of applause. “Our people will be eternally grateful for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
As guests sipped wine in front of a stage with a backdrop of American and Israeli flags, the mosques in Gaza were urging people to attend protests.
The Israeli military says it will deploy two additional battalions of soldiers on the edges of the barricaded strip, roughly doubling the number of forces. A second and third defense line of troops will be set up and reservists have been called in. Another extra battalion will be deployed in the occupied West Bank.
In Jersualem, protests are planned at the same time as the embassy opening, with one in an Arab neighborhood just a few blocks away. More than 1,000 police officers are working together with the U.S. Embassy to coordinate security for Monday’s event, a police spokesman said.
“This one-sided move strengthens Israel’s occupation and takes us further from peace,” said Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab faction in Israel’s parliament.
Hamas has thrown its weight behind the demonstrations in Gaza, which have deflected Palestinians’ frustration with their leadership as residents of the blockaded 140-square mile territory struggle to make ends meet.
More than 70 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees from areas in Isreal, and the demonstrations have rallied for their U.N.-endorsed right of return.
“Our people have the right to break the walls of this big prison,” Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said in a briefing with foreign journalists. “We went out to knock the wall of the prison and declare it clearly that we won’t accept to die slowly.”
Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, though the United Nations still classifies it as occupied due to the level of control wielded by Israel, which restricts the movement of people and goods. Egypt has also only sporadically opened its border.
“What’s the problem if hundreds of thousands storm this fence which is not a border?” said Sinwar.
Palestinians have burned tires, thrown stones, tried to break the fence and sent kites carrying burning coals over it. The military has also said there have been cases where explosives were thrown or planted, and one shooting incident.
But the use of live ammunition on largely peaceful crowds has drawn condemnation from human rights groups.
On the boundary with Gaza on Friday, near the Israeli kibbutz of Mefalsim, the Israeli official, who declined to be named in line with the military’s protocol, said Palestinian casualty numbers appear broadly accurate, except for on one point – injuries by rubber bullets.
“We saw something about rubber bullets,” he said, “but we didn’t shoot one.”
The Israeli military has stressed that it uses live fire only as a last resort, but the only crowd dispersal means it has used is tear gas, the officer said. Rubber bullets do not have enough range, he said, though Israeli snipers are positioned just a few dozen yards from the fence.
Under the rules of engagement, a protester can be shot in the head only during “terror activities,” he said. That does not include stonethrowers, he added. Otherwise the instructions are to shoot below the knees of ringleaders. Videoed incidents that show otherwise are investigated, he said.
Israel says that Hamas is using the demonstrations as a cover to carry out attacks, pointing out that some of those killed are known militants.
The death toll at recent demonstrations has shrunk, with one Palestinian killed on Friday, and no deaths the previous week.
“I think it’s the experience of the forces,” the officer said. “If you do it one time, you get better, you learn what not to do if you don’t want people killed.” ”
Hospitals in Gaza are preparing for bloodshed, setting up tents with extra beds outside.
Next to the sniper positions at the border fence the Israeli officer hands over a pair of binoculars. The Gazans largely stand stoically facing the border fence.
“Do you see a stone thrower?” he asks. After a minute or so, a man picks up a stone, and throws it, but it falls short of the fence. Black smoke from burning tires billows across. A few minutes later the crack of a bullet rings out. A warning shot, the officer says.
For many, including the army officer, the big question is – what happens next? lsrael is investing more than $800 million in a below- and above-ground barrier around Gaza, due to be completed next year.
But few seem to be talking of a long-term solution to an increasingly explosive situation, as Gaza is also being squeezed by salary cuts by the Palestinian authority in Ramallah.
On Saturday demonstrators burned the main cargo terminal to Gaza, causing $2.8 million in damage and further choking off supplies.
“There is a wild tiger that was besieged and starved through 11 years and now it was set free and no one knows where it’s going and what it will do,” said Sinwar.
Eglash reported from Jersualem, Balousha from Gaza City.