GAZA (Reuters) - A seasonal shift in the weather and intensified international diplomacy are prompting Palestinians mounting protests along Gaza’s border with Israel to rethink their tactics.
Since the demonstrations started more than seven months ago, protesters routinely made attempts to breach Israel’s frontier fence and launched incendiary balloons and kites that have burned forests and crops inside Israel.
On Thursday, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian at the frontier whom the military said was sabotaging the fence.
His death brought to 220 the number of Gazans killed at the border since the protests began there, according to Gazan officials. An Israeli soldier was also killed by a Palestinian sniper.
The protests draw tens of thousands of people after Muslim prayers on Fridays. But last week was the quietest so far, according to journalists who regularly cover the demonstrations.
Smoke from burning tyres wafting towards Israel provided a measure of cover for Palestinian youngsters approaching the barrier, but a wintry change in wind direction sent the thick black clouds back into Gaza and Israeli tear gas deeper into the crowd of protesters, forcing their retreat.
Stepped-up efforts by Egypt to craft a long-term ceasefire between Gaza’s ruling Hamas group and Israel that could ease an Israeli blockade are also putting a damper on the protests.
A ceasefire, said one official familiar with the talks involving Egypt, Qatar and the U.N., would include a gradual end to the rallies, or an agreement to hold them far from the fence, as well as an easing of Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people at the border.
Organisers have made clear the protests would continue until the long-standing Israeli border restrictions were lifted. Dubbed the “Great March of Return”, the campaign demands the rights to lands Palestinian families fled or were driven from during fighting around Israel’s founding in 1948.
One protester, wearing a black mask, said demonstrators were weighing new ways to confront the Israeli military now that seasonal rains have begun.
“We may use fire crackers, noisy horns and we will try to cut through the fence. We will surprise them with things we will not make public now,” said the 23-year-old, who gave his name only as Hakim.
One idea, he said, was to build a giant slingshot to launch rocks across the barbed wire barrier.
A statement by a Palestinian group which claimed balloon launchings said it would allow time for diplomacy to work before escalating action again.
“We will give a chance for an agreement to be reached that will ease the bitterness of the blockade imposed on our people,” said the Sons of Zwary group, named after a Hamas engineer killed in Tunisia in an alleged Israeli assassination.
In the meantime, it said, it was preparing hundreds of incendiary devices.
Daoud Shehab, of the National Committee supervising the protests, said five assembly areas were being prepared for winter.
“We are placing plastic sheeting to cover large areas and we are also going to pave the ground where people usually gather,” he said.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky, Richard Balmforth