by Yoav Limor, Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
IDF deploys additional combat troops, over 100 snipers to Israel-Gaza border ahead of mass Palestinian march • Hamas pledges to prevent protesters from breaching fence
The Israeli military declared Wednesday it was prepared to use "substantial force" to prevent Palestinians from rushing the Israel-Gaza border fence, ahead of a mass Hamas-orchestrated march, planned for Friday.
One defense official stressed that "we won't allow Hamas to disrupt the Passover Seder."
The terrorist group that rules the coastal enclave has called for a series of "peaceful protests" beginning March 30, when the Palestinians mark Land Day in commemoration of a 1976 incident in which Israeli forces killed six unarmed Arab citizens and wounded about a hundred amid violent riots.
Hamas said it expected as many as 100,000 Palestinians to take part in Friday's so-called "March of Return."
Bracing for potential violence, the IDF has deployed Infantry, Armored Corps and Combat Intelligence troops, alongside special forces, sappers and more than 100 snipers to the border.
Military, Border Police and Israel Police troops on the ground will be backed by aerial assistance to better monitor protesters' movement along the fence and alert the troops in the event of attempts to target IDF posts or infiltrate border-adjacent communities.
Security forces have been ordered to prevent a breach of the security fence, but they have also been instructed to exercise maximum restraint so as to minimize the number of Palestinian casualties.
"We will not allow security infrastructure to be compromised," IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said Tuesday. "If the Palestinians think they can organize a march and cross the fence into our territory, they are wrong."
"We will use an iron fist to prevent protesters from infiltrating Israel. We have granted permission to open fire if lives are in jeopardy. [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh and whoever sent them [the protesters] there will be solely responsible for whatever happens."
U.N. envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov called on all parties "to exercise restraint and take the necessary steps to avoid a violent escalation."
In an interview with the Arabic-language satellite TV channel Alhurra on Wednesday, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said that any attempt by the Palestinians to breach the Gaza border "would meet a forceful Israeli response and not just toward the protesters."
Mordechai said Israel has "contacted over 20 bus companies in Gaza that were paid by Hamas to shuttle protesters to the border and warned them that the companies' owners will be subject to personal sanctions."
He leveled harsh criticism at Gaza's Hamas leadership, saying "Hamas has failed – in the economy, in governing Gaza, in the reconciliation [with Fatah], and it has also failed in its terrorist army project, when it chose to invest its millions in terror tunnels."
Israel is nearing the completion of an underground barrier meant to counter the threat posed by Hamas' grid of terror tunnels. The cost of construction is expected to exceed $850 million.
'This is not a violent protest'
A senior Hamas official in Gaza told Israel Hayom that the mass march is planned as a peaceful protest and that Hamas has instructed its security forces to prevent protesters from coming within 800 meters (2,600 feet) from the security fence.
"Military wing personnel will be deployed near the gathering point in Khan Younis and will serve as a buffer between the protesters and the border. We instructed organizers to prevent protesters from approaching the fence. We have made it clear to organizers that we will now allow protesters to reach the fence," he said.
While Hamas seems earnest in its attempt to prevent riots in Friday's march, some on Palestinian social media have been calling for protesters to clash with Israeli security forces and carry out terrorist attacks.
The official said that Hamas security forces will search protesters to ensure no weapons are brought in.
"We don't want to see a bloodbath. Just a quiet protest," he said, warning that "if there are Israeli provocations and if Israel deliberately harms protesters or our people we will mount a harsh response."
"We will not tolerate any aggression by the Israeli enemy," he vowed.
Also on Wednesday, the IDF said that a weeklong closure will be imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip beginning on Thursday night, ahead of the Passover holiday.
Restrictions of this kind are routinely imposed ahead of major Jewish holidays to minimize friction.
The military said that all crossings to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be closed to Palestinians beginning Thursday at midnight until Saturday, April 7 at midnight. Exceptions will be made in humanitarian, medical and other urgent cases, as determined by the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
Yoav Limor, Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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