Here’s the backstory of the Great March of Return protests and the conditions that have brought Gaza to this point.
A newspaper affiliated to Hamas has reported that a deal has been reached with Israel to reduce tension in the Gaza Strip, as Palestinians prepare to mark the first anniversary of weekly protests along the border fence with Israel.
Gaza’s fence with Israel has for the past year been the scene of mass protests and major bloodshed in which more than 260 Palestinians were killed by Israeli sniper fire and nearly 7,000 shot and wounded, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
For months, and through repeated military escalations, Egyptian mediators have been trying to broker a truce.
But on the eve of the anniversary of the so-called Great March of Return protests, the organising committee, which is calling for a “million man march” on Saturday, issued instructions to the demonstrators: stay back from Israeli guns, follow commands of organisers on the ground, make no aggressive actions, and don’t burn tyres – a sign that an Egyptian-brokered deal was in the works.
“The occupation has to meet this test – to implement the positive responses we heard from the Egyptian delegation,” Khalil Alhaya, a Hamas official, told Al Jazeera. “We, the Palestinian factions and our people, are struggling to achieve our fair and legitimate demands.”
Palestinians with knowledge of the talks told AFP news agency that as part of the proposed deal, Gaza protesters were to keep away from the fence on Saturday and Israeli snipers were to hold their fire.
Early on Saturday, the health ministry in Gaza said a Palestinian man, who was shot by Israeli forces near the perimeter fence with Israel on Friday, died hours before the mass protest was expected to start.
The ministry said 21-year-old Mohammed Saad was shot at a protest camp near the fence.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Gaza, said a Hamas-affiliated al-Risalah newspaper reported on Friday night that an agreement between Hamas and Israel had been reached.
“Among the Israeli concessions, according to the al-Risalah newspaper: Increasing Qatari funding from $15m to $40m a month to pay salaries; extending the fishing zone from 9 to 12 nautical miles; increasing the electricity supply from Israel into Gaza; and approving a major desalination project.
“In return, Israel has been seeking an end to rocket fire, such as that which destroyed a family home north of Tel Aviv on Monday, injuring seven and sparking a new round of escalation,” Fawcett reported.
On Saturday morning, hundreds protesters started arriving in the area east of Gaza City near the border fence with Israel.
For the first time at the protests, Hamas security officers were seen wearing military uniforms, as they picked up tyres and took them away. “It looks as if they are here to enforce the deal, to make sure that no one sets these tires alight,” Fawcett reported.
Israel, which has sent extra troops and tanks to the border, also wants an end to incendiary balloon launches, and a guarantee of calm at the fence.
The Great March of Return protests began on March 30 last year after civil society groups in Gaza called for action against the crippling Israeli blockade against the enclave, now in its 12th year. The first protest fell on Land Day – the annual March 30 commemoration of the deaths of six Palestinians in 1976, who protested the confiscation of their land to build Jewish communities.
A UN investigation found that while some protesters over the past year used violence, the vast majority were unarmed and peaceful – stating Israel had no justification for using live ammunition and that the actions of Israeli forces may amount to war crimes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to balance projecting military strength with seeking de-escalation before the general election on April 9.
“All Israelis should know that if a comprehensive campaign is required, we will enter it strongly and safely, and after we have exhausted all of the other options,” Netanyahu said.
Hamas is also under domestic political pressure. Earlier this month, protesters took to the streets instead of the border over price rises and tax hikes, as Hamas security put the demonstrations down with beatings and arrests.
At the core of those protests were the same feelings of despair and frustration that for a year now, and despite all the risks, have brought thousands to the border, week after week.