GAZA CITY,(AFP) -Palestinian schoolchildren were forming a human chain the length of the Gaza Strip on Monday to protest a crushing Israeli blockade, with Israeli forces on alert for any rush on the border.
Coming from around Gaza, they were joined by adults along the main highway traversing the centre of the impoverished coastal strip, known as Salaheddin Road, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
“The Siege of Gaza Will Only Strengthen Us,” “The World Has Condemned Gaza to Death” and “Save Gaza” were among banners brandished by demonstrators, who were gathering peacefully.
The Popular Committee Against the Siege, a politically independent group headed by Jamal al-Khudari, an MP with close links to the Islamist Hamas movement, had called for the demonstration against the months-long siege.
The aim was to construct a human chain from the sealed Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt to the Beit Hanun (Erez) crossing in the north along the territory’s main highway.
Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June following battles with forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, has said it backed the demonstration but did not organise it.
Israel warned Hamas that it would defend its territory if there were any disturbances.
“Israel will not intervene in demonstrations inside the Gaza Strip but it will ensure the defence of its territory and prevent any violation of its sovereign borders,” said a joint statement from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
The statement accused Hamas of “orchestrating a premeditated effort to put civilians on the front line”.
“Israel is working to prevent an escalation, but has made it absolutely clear that if there is an escalation, the responsibility will be entirely on Hamas’s shoulders.”
Media reports said the army was preparing for any attempt to storm the border fence around the Gaza Strip aimed at breaking the blockade.
The Jerusalem Post said an artillery battery had been moved to the border for the first time in months.
It said the army refused to confirm or deny a report that troops would be instructed to fire at protesters’ legs if they approached the border fence.
The Haaretz daily said, however, the rules of engagement would include various levels of warning and the use of live ammunition “selectively.”
The newspaper said army and police commanders reviewed perparedness on Sunday night, and that 6,500 police had been deployed to the area to maintain order.
According to Israeli army radio, Hamas may stage a mass march on the border to protest against Israel’s closure of Gaza, where most of the 1.5 million population depend on aid.
Media reports said organisers were planning to place one person every metre (yard) along the roughly 40-kilometre (24 mile) road running from Rafah to Beit Hanun, for a total of around 40,000 people.
Salaheddin Road runs through the centre of the territory and is never much closer than around three kilometres (two miles) from the border.
Reports said the Israelis’ main concern was what might happen at its northern terminus near the Erez crossing.
On January 23, Palestinian militants blasted several holes in the border barrier between Gaza and Egypt, sending a tide of hundreds of thousands of people streaming into the Sinai on a mission to replenish depleted stocks.
Hamas gunmen and Egyptian troops resealed the border on February 3.
Israel has sealed the territory to all but vital humanitarian supplies since Hamas seized power in June, in a bid to put pressure on the Islamist group to halt rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.
But the Palestinians and several international agencies have said the sanctions amount to collective punishment of the civilian population.