The human-chain demonstration staged by the ruling Hamas terrorist organization on the Gaza side of the separation barrier was quiet for most of the event and expected to end by early afternoon, according to a Hamas spokesman quoted by Voice of Israel government radio.
By midday, however, Hamas gunmen had begun shooting in the air in an effort to keep protestors from reaching the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza. No injuries were reported.
Only several thousand people joined the demonstration, instead of the crowd of tens of thousands of Gaza residents that had been called upon to show up. Hamas made an effort to keep the protest non-violent, hoping to gain maximum positive media exposure.
"People will not break across the border, but they will show the world that the siege must be broken," said Jamal al-Khudary, one of the organizers of the protest. He added that Hamas police were keeping protestors several hundred yards away from the fence.
Israeli security forces were prepared to face a massive crowd of Gaza Arabs who threatened they might breach the barrier in much the same way they did with Egypt last month.
Israel Police deployed 6,500 police officers along the border area. The IDF reviewed its rules of engagement with soldiers and also moved a large number of troops into the region. An artillery battery was moved to the area and IDF soldiers were ordered to shoot at the legs of terrorists if they began to open fire.
Some 40-50,000 Gaza residents, including many women and children, were expected to be waving flags and presenting a perfect “photo op,” after being recruited by the terror organization to line the Gaza side of the barrier, from Rafah in the south all the way north to Beit Hanoun. The northern Gaza town is a favorite Kassam rocket launching spot for terrorists whose constant attacks on nearby Sderot have traumatized both children and adults in the western Negev city for seven years.
Schools in Gaza were closed in order to enable thousands of children to join the adults massing along the barrier.
In a joint statement issued Sunday night by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the two said, “Israel will defend its territory and prevent an infiltration of its sovereign borders.” Livni is acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on a four-day visit to Japan.
Olmert told reporters en route to the Asian nation that he had not received any intelligence warnings that Hamas plans a massive breakthrough of the barrier.
Hamas and Egypt
Hamas blew up the border barrier between Gaza and Egypt on January 23, sending hundreds of thousands of PA Arabs rushing into the country through the formerly sealed border. Several attempts by Egyptian police to begin to close the holes in the barrier earned them attacks by Hamas terrorists hurling rocks and in some cases shooting at the security forces.
Gaza residents were given three weeks in which to shop – and in some cases, find places to hide in order to avoid returning to their former homes. It was also estimated that more than 1,000 terrorists also managed to escape into the Sinai Peninsula before Egypt resealed the border.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit bluntly warned the terrorist organization that security forces would “cut off the legs” of anyone who tried to repeat the breach.
After several fruitless meetings in which Hamas tried to negotiate a way to keep the Egyptian border open, or at least under terrorist control, the group decided to follow up its breach of the Egyptian border with a similar event at Israel’s Erez border crossing. The terrorist group later backed down from its threat and instead planned a massive turnout of tens of thousands of Gaza residents strung along the 40-kilometer border with Israel to protest the ongoing blockade.
Nonetheless, some Hamas sources said Sunday a human surge that would include women and children might indeed become a charge toward the sealed security barrier instead.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned Hamas, in an interview on Voice of Israel government radio, that Israel would operate "as we did in the first intifiada against mass demonstrations; we know how to deal with it." Echoing Livni and Barak, Vilnai said that under no circumstances would Israel allow Gaza residents to cross the separation barrier.
"I hope the Hamas regime, which is bringing a Holocaust upon its people, will eventually understand what it can and cannot do," said Vilnai. "They are trapped in their crazy ideology that commits them to Israel's destruction. They know it's not practical. They know they can't do it."