AFP, Feb. 25, 2008
GAZA CITY (AFP) - Gazans were set to form a human chain along the length of the territory on Monday to protest the crushing Israeli blockade, with Israeli forces on alert for trouble or a possible rush on the border.
The Popular Committee Against the Siege (PCAS), a politically independent group headed by Palestinian parliamentarian Jamal al-Khudari, called for the mass demonstration against the months-long siege on the impoverished territory.
The group said it would attempt to construct a human chain from the sealed Rafah crossing on the southern Gaza border with Egypt to the Beit Hanun crossing in northern Gaza along the territory's main highway.
Israel has sealed off the territory -- where most of the 1.5 million population depend on aid -- from all but vital humanitarian supplies since Hamas violently seized power there in June, in a bid to halt rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.
But Palestinians and several international agencies have said the sanctions amount to collective punishment of its civilian population.
Palestinian militants blasted several holes in the border barrier between Gaza and Egypt on January 23, sending a tide of hundreds of thousands of people streaming into the Sinai on a mission to replenish depleted stocks.
Egyptian troops and Hamas gunmen resealed the border on February 3.
Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last June following battles with forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, has said it backs Monday's demonstration but did not organise it.
But Israel warned Hamas on Sunday it would defend its territory if there were any disturbances during the rally.
"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.
Media reports said the Israeli army is preparing for a possible rush on the border fence around the Gaza Strip aimed at breaking the economic blockade.
According to Israeli army radio, Hamas may turn the demonstration into a mass march on the border.
"Hamas must understand that there are lines not to be crossed," Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said on public radio on Monday. "We will use all means necessary to prevent infiltrations into our sovereign territory."
Israel's Haaretz newspaper has reported that Israeli forces have increased their presence along the border, adding that there were fears of casualties if troops try to halt such a march.
Spokesman Miki Rosenfeld told AFP that Israeli police have been put on high alert, one stage below the maximum level.
"We have deployed significant personnel in southern Israel, who have been placed under the supervision of the army and are prepared for any eventuality," he told AFP.
Vilnai said Hamas should have no difficulty in controlling the rally.
"In general, Hamas knows how to repress demonstrations," he said in an apparent reference to the movement's squelching of protests by supporters of its rival Fatah and other groups.