The Israeli army announced on Saturday that it had destroyed a tunnel dug by Hamas — the Palestinian militia ruling the Gaza Strip — a few feet before it reached the Israeli border, and that it was also shutting down the main cargo crossing into Gaza after fire damage by protesters Friday had rendered it "totally unusable."
It was the ninth such tunnel demolished in the last seven months, according to the Israeli army.
On Saturday, the Health Ministry in Gaza reported that a 15-year-old Palestinian identified as Jamal Abu Arahman Afaneh had died from wounds sustained during the protests, raising the death toll from Friday's demonstrations to two, and the total number of Palestinian deaths since protests started on March 30 to 49.
A potentially more violent week ahead looms across all Palestinian territories — along with a surge in casualties — as the weekly protests culminate with a threatened breach of the border.
Palestinians and Israelis on either side of the Erez border crossing reported loud blasts about 8 p.m. Erez is a pedestrian crossing that 52,000 people used in 2017, according to the Israeli army, "the overwhelming number for humanitarian purposes," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli army.
In addition to its immediate and practical effect, the surgical strike on the tunnel along Erez is a signal to Hamas that Israel will not shy away from exerting the full force of its military, if necessary, during a week that will include the inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem; Nakba Day, in which Palestinians mark their dispossession during Israel's war of independence; and the start of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar — each potent events fraught with national, cultural and religious meaning.
Palestinian authorities said that 10 missiles were launched during the Israeli strike to destroy the tunnel, causing no casualties.
Conricus said the half-mile-long tunnel had been dug for months and tracked by the Israelis for weeks.
"The Hamas terror organization is trying to create a violent situation and conduct terrorist activity" under the cover of "riots and demonstrations next week," Conricus said, adding that the Israeli army was prepared for any eventuality.
"The Israeli bombing is a miserable and failed attempt to prevent the participation of the masses of our people in the Gaza Great March of Return," Hamas said in a statement. "Our answer to this attempt will be the participation of huge numbers in the march toward the border demanding their rights.
"Our people's response will come on Monday by marching" to the fence, the statement said.
Israel fears that in the coming week up to 100,000 Palestinians could gather in massive demonstrations at the Gaza border and across the West Bank, where the population has so far remained indifferent to the movement in Gaza. Hamas has threatened to organize masses of people to storm the fence that separates Israel from the beleaguered enclave that has subsisted under a virtual siege since Hamas took the territory over in 2007.
The army said it is deploying three infantry brigades to potential points of conflagration, and coordinating with Israeli security services, police, firefighters and other emergency services in preparation for the week.
Conricus said the army did not have any plans for arresting or otherwise stopping thousands of people crossing into Israel if the attempt to breach the border is successful, since "we are determined to avoid any infiltration into Israel and any terror attack on Israeli targets, military or civilian."
He said the army planned to use tear gas and other nonlethal riot dispersal methods and would resort to live ammunition only as a last resort. He also said Israel would try to convey a message of moderation to "everyday Gazans," including instructions that they protest "at a safe distance from the fence."
"We are telling them not to come closer than 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) from the fence. We are telling them that anyone who comes closer than that is putting his life in danger. They should stay away," he said.
Saturday's bombing was also a signal to Israelis living on the border with Gaza, who have grown increasingly anxious as the middle of May approaches, that the army is vigilantly protecting their communities.
The indefinite closing of the Kerem Shalom border post is likely to bring even more misery to Gaza's devastated population. Fuel pipes destroyed in fires there are the only vehicle for importing diesel into Gaza for hospital generators and other basic facilities.
On Saturday, the Israeli army released a video showing a few dozen Palestinians cheering as the Kerem Shalom crossing burned.
"Hamas is trying to transform the border fence protests, including those expected to take place Monday and Tuesday, into covers for terror attacks," said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the Israeli army's chief spokesman.
"Hamas' action yesterday against the Kerem Shalom crossing is cynical to both Gazans and donor countries…. Hamas is killing the Gaza Strip."