Palestinian protests on the Gaza-Israel border have dropped off over the past two days, amid reports that Egyptian officials intervened to restore calm after dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire.
Gaza’s dominant Islamist Hamas movement denied that it was under pressure from Egypt to scale back the six-week-old demonstrations, and said they would continue, although fewer Palestinians were now gathering in protest tents.
Dubbed the March of Return, the protests were launched on March 30 to assert the right of Palestinians to return to homes lost to Israel in 1948.
Gaza analyst Akram Attallah, pointing to the smaller number of protesters since Monday’s deaths, said,”I can see there is a retreat because of the Israeli bloody response … but Friday will represent an indicator to where things are going.”Fridays normally see protesters turn out in larger numbers.
In fact, the reports of Egyptian pressure on Hamas followed a visit by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday to Egypt, which has sought to act as a broker between Hamas, Israel, and other Palestinian factions.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz claimed that an Egyptian intelligence chief, whom he did not name, “made unequivocally clear” to Haniyeh that Egypt would not help if Hamas continued to stoke the protests, and Israel responded with harsher measures.
Katz told Israel Radio, “Haniyeh returned to Gaza, Hamas gave an order … and miraculously, this spontaneous protest by a public that could not handle the situation any more dissipated.”
There was no immediate response from Egypt to Katz’s statements, and Hamas dismissed the Israeli claims as false.
Hamas leader in Gaza Yehya Sinwar denied that Egypt put pressure on Hamas to end the protests and said that instead, Haniyeh discussed what Cairo could do to ease hardship in Gaza.
“They were keen these marches do not slide into armed confrontations and we agree with the brothers in Egypt over that,”Sinwar said in an interview on Al Jazeera television.
Since 2007, Gaza has been controlled by Hamas resistance movement. Both Israel and Egypt maintain a de facto blockade on Gaza which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.
Two million people live in the narrow strip, most stateless descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of homes during fighting between the Zionist and Arab forces. They suffer from what the World Bank says is one of the highest rates of unemployment on earth, and say the blockade makes rebuilding impossible.
At a border protest encampment east of Gaza City, Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, urged people to take part in mass rallies on Friday.
Organisers say the Gaza protests are civilian actions, noting the absence of Israeli casualties, compared to 107 Palestinian dead and thousands of wounded.