A senior Hamas official signalled support Thursday for thousands of Palestinians to breach the border fence from Gaza into Israel at protests to coincide with next week’s U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem.
In his first major briefing to international media since becoming Gaza head of the Islamist group in 2017, Yahya Sinwar implied he would like to see thousands of Palestinians crossing into Israel as part of more than a month of protests.
Asked what he wanted to see from protests on Monday and Tuesday, Sinwar pointed out Israel has never specifically defined its borders.
“What’s the problem with hundreds of thousands breaking through a fence that is not a border?” Sinwar said he hoped Israel would not shoot at what he called “peaceful” protests.
Fifty-two Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since protests and clashes began on March 30 calling for Palestinian refugees to be able to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.
The majority of those killed were shot during protests and clashes near the border. No Israelis have been hurt, though protesters have thrown stones and rolled burning tyres towards soldiers along the border. Israel says there have also been infiltration attempts.
Sinwar said the lack of Israelis hurt was evidence the protests were peaceful. But he warned the protests risked spiralling out of control, blaming Israel for imposing a blockade on the strip and its two million residents since Hamas took control in 2007.
Israel says the restrictions are necessary to restrict Hamas, with whom it has fought three wars since 2008.
‘The Tiger is Loose’
It accuses the Islamist movement of spending money that could go towards easing the humanitarian crisis on weapons and building tunnels to be used for attacks.
“The Gaza Strip is like a hungry tiger that has been starved and left in a cage for 11 years,” Sinwar said. “Now the tiger is loose, and nobody knows what it will do.”
Gaza suffers from high levels of unemployment, while more than 95 percent of the water is not fit for consumption due to pollution.
Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, attacks and damage to the border fence, while accusing Hamas of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.
Palestinians say protesters are being shot while posing no threat to soldiers and there have been international calls for an independent investigation.
Thousands are expected to gather along the border on Monday, which coincides with the controversial opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
There are fears protesters could try and breach the fence, leading to more bloodshed.
Palestinians, who also consider Jerusalem their capital, reacted furiously to President Donald Trump’s December 6 announcement that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the divided holy city, with widespread street protests.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since forcing out the internationally recognised Palestinian government in 2007.
Despite technically being second in control to Ismail Haniya, Sinwar, who came from the group’s military wing, is seen as the dominant force in the Islamist movement.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by the Jewish state, the United States and the European Union.