Gaza City: A Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire on the Gaza border early Saturday, hours ahead of mass protests that could severely test a fragile calm between the Jewish state and the territory’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
They mark the first anniversary of the often violent weekly border demonstrations in which around 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed.
They also come just 10 days before a keenly contested general election in Israel.
Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a stiff challenge from centrist former military chief Benny Gantz and wants to avoid accusations of being soft on Hamas.
Late Friday, Hamas officials said a deal had been reached that would see the protesters refrain from approaching the border fence, in exchange for Israeli concessions.
But there was no confirmation from Israel and it was unclear to what extent the group can control the protesterss.
While demonstrations have taken place at least weekly since March last year, Hamas has been building up the anniversary protests for several months.
The group’s leader Ismail Haniya has called for a million people to gather across five protest sites, and mosques in Gaza late Friday used loudspeakers to encourage a mass turnout.
The protests peaked in May, when Israeli forces shot dead at least 62 Palestinians in a single day in clashes over the transfer of the US embassy to Israel to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
– Shrapnel –
Early Saturday, protester Mohammed Saad, 20, died after being hit by shrapnel from Israeli fire, the Gaza health ministry said.
Witnesses said he had been taking part in an overnight demonstration.
The designated protest sites remained calm early Saturday, with only a few dozen young demonstrators present, overseen by Hamas security officers.
“These marches will not end until after the separation fence is removed,” protester Ismail Ghoban said.
“This is our land, not for anyone else.”
The demonstrators are calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land their families fled in the 1948 war that accompanied the creation of Israel.
Israel says any such mass return would spell the end of a Jewish state.
Demonstrations are expected to peak on Saturday afternoon, with tens of thousands potentially taking part.
Two million Palestinians live in impoverished Gaza, crammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Analysts highlight the desperate living conditions and lack of freedom of movement as driving forces behind the weekly protests.
Israel has maintained a crippling blockade of the enclave for more than a decade, and Egypt often closes Gaza’s only other gateway to the outside world.
The UN says more than 90 percent of the water is unsafe for drinking and residents receive less than 12 hours of mains electricity a day.
While the protests were initially largely peaceful, they have become more violent as Hamas has appeared to exert increasing control.
Demonstrators burn tyres, throw rocks and even try to damage the border fence.
Small groups have also attached incendiary devices to balloons before floating them over the border in an attempt to set fire to nearby Israeli homes and farmland.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to contain Hamas, and the army has increased its presence along the border in recent days.
Several thousand troops, including dozens of snipers, are positioned at various locations along the border.
Palestinians and human rights organisations accuse Israel of excessive use of force.
– Risky game –
Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008 and analysts say a fourth remains likely.
On Monday, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a house north of the Israeli commercial capital Tel Aviv, wounding seven people.
In response, the Israeli military struck dozens of Hamas targets in Gaza until a ceasefire was reached.
A security delegation from Egypt, the go-to mediator between Hamas and Israel, has since shuttled between the two sides to head off a new escalation.
Hamas officials said Friday that Egypt had brokered an agreement whereby the marches would remain peaceful if Israel agreed to allow more Qatari aid into Gaza and eased its economic blockade.
Israeli officials declined to comment.
Fears remain that serious violence could provoke Netanyahu into a reaction.
Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said Hamas was trying to use the protests to get concessions from Israel.
“Hamas seems to think that the runup to Israeli elections, and Netanyahu’s desire to maintain calm in Gaza, has given it increased leverage,” he said.
“But as we have seen with Israel’s military buildup along the Gaza border, this could be a risky strategy.”
The UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Jamie McGoldrick, spoke of positive signals from all sides and said he was “quietly hopeful” it would remain calm.