Palestinians Plan Mass Gaza March as U.S. Embassy Move Nears

(Bloomberg) -- As the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem approaches, Palestinians are planning to march by the tens of thousands to the fence that encloses the Gaza Strip to dramatize their plight.

“We want to frighten the Israelis with the images of massive crowds of people who peaceably gather and sit close to the border,” Hamas spokesman Ahmed Abu Retaima said. “We are working to bring out more than 100,000 people for the march.”

The announcement comes amid growing tensions over President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a U.S peace plan that has yet to see the light of day. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has cut off all contact with the White House since December, this week called U.S. ambassador David Friedman a “son of a dog,” a slur Friedman said carried an air of anti-Semitism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that Palestinian leaders -- used to being “spoiled” by U.S. administrations -- were “losing their cool.”

Israeli authorities are bracing for escalation beginning March 30, when Hamas will begin building tent camps along Gaza’s 40-kilometer (25-mile) border with Israel. Six weeks later Palestinians plan a mass march toward the border, defying warnings from Israeli officials -- who doubt the march will remain peaceful -- to stay 100 meters from the fence.

Surge of Violence

Hamas’ planned march comes amid a surge in violence in recent weeks. Palestinians, who demand the eastern part of Jerusalem as their own capital, have been storming the Gaza fence and planting bombs targeting Israeli soldiers, drawing retaliatory fire and airstrikes. Several Israelis have been killed in stabbing and car-ramming attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Trump’s envoys have continued preparing their peace plan and say they will present it when the time is right. According to a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, 88 percent of Palestinians believe the plan will favor Israel. Abbas has already pledged to reject the plan.

P.A. officials refused to attend last week’s White House summit that brought together Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries seeking solutions for Gaza’s humanitarian distress. Abbas on Monday described the summit as a plot against the Palestinians and said he was imposing fresh sanctions on Hamas in Gaza.

Efforts to repair the schism between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have fallen apart, exacerbated by last week’s bombing of the motorcade carrying the P.A.’s prime minister and intelligence chief on a rare visit to Gaza. Abbas blamed Hamas for the attack; Hamas accused Abbas of undermining Palestinian unity.

Squeezing Hamas

Israeli officials say Abbas’s pressure on Hamas is intensifying the distress of Gaza’s 1.9 million inhabitants, which Hamas seeks to channel against Israel. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman last week accused Abbas of trying to push Israel and Hamas into war.

The Gaza protests correspond with red-letter dates on the Palestinian calendar. March 30 is “Land Day,” marking a 1976 incident when Israeli forces killed six Arab citizens amid violent demonstrations. In mid-May, when the U.S. embassy is tentatively slated to open, Palestinians commemorate the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, of Israel’s founding.

The Hamas march is “clearly an attempt to break through the fences, and they are ready to tolerate losses,” Ehud Yaari, an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a conference call.

Days of Rage

Hamas also appealed to Palestinians in the West Bank to confront Israeli soldiers and settlers to keep the conflict “boiling.” Abbas’s government is sponsoring frequent “Days of Rage” where Palestinians are expected to vent their anger at Israel.

Yousef Munayyer, an analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, said the border march will force Israel into an unpalatable choice.

“You’re essentially talking about the Israeli military lining up like a firing squad against a wall of Palestinians civilians walking toward the fence,” Munayyer said. “I don’t think that’s the optics the Israelis want to have out there.”

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