Cease-fire talks continue ahead of Gaza anniversary rally

FARES AKRAM and ISABEL DEBRE
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In this Wednesday, March 27, 2019 photo, Palestinian groom Walid al-Shawa sits in the rubble of a building that was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike late Monday, in Gaza City. Al-Shawa was due to get married in two weeks, but an Israeli airstrike on a Gaza City building destroyed his sister's apartment, where he had rented a second floor bedroom and had amassed everything he and his bride needed for the wedding. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas progressed Friday, the leader of the Islamic militant group said, as the Gaza Strip braced for renewed violence on the eve of the first anniversary of its weekly protests along the frontier with Israel.

The anniversary event could prove combustible, coming days before the Israeli elections and following a round of heavy cross-border fighting, ignited by a rocket launched from Gaza that slammed into a house in central Israel earlier this week.

Egyptian mediators shuttled between Gaza and Israel throughout the day, according to the main Gaza factions, relaying messages and proposing solutions to tamp down the scale and intensity of the expected rally.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement that the militant group is "at a crossroads" in the latest round of talks with Egyptian officials.

Haniyeh said Hamas is demanding the delivery of aid and goods to the blockaded Gaza Strip, an end to water and electricity shortages, and job creation programs to mitigate the territory's 50 percent unemployment rate.

Hamas launched the weekly march movement a year ago, initially to call for a return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral lands in what is now Israel.

The focus of the demonstrations has been expanded to pressuring Israel into lifting its crippling blockade of the coastal enclave. The blockade, enforced also by Egypt, has created a worsening economic and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and stoked Hamas fears of internal dissent.

Egyptian and international mediators fear that if Hamas fails to restrain the anniversary protests, violence could escalate into a major conflagration between the bitter enemies. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in 2007, it has fought three devastating wars with Israel.

Hamas has been mobilizing its resources and urging Palestinians to come out in force to five locations along the Israeli security fence on Saturday. Protest organizers installed tents near the border equipped with electricity and internet connection for demonstrators. The main Gaza City hospital has erected a triage tent in anticipation of a massive influx of casualties.

Israel bolstered its forces around the enclave in advance. COGAT, the Israeli defense body that coordinates civil affairs for the Palestinian territories, shared a Facebook video addressing demonstrators in Arabic, warning Palestinians to stay at least 300 meters (328 yards) away from the security fence "for your own safety."

Although Hamas canceled its typical Friday protests in preparation for the anniversary, dozens of Palestinians still demonstrated at the Israeli frontier. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported that seven people were injured by Israeli fire.

Earlier on Friday, a U.N. official urged both sides to avoid violence at the demonstration.

Jamie McGoldrick, the world body's humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, in a statement outlined the "staggering" human costs a year of demonstrations has inflicted, especially on Gaza's children.

He said 195 Palestinians, including some 40 children, have been killed by Israeli forces and nearly 29,000 Palestinians have been wounded, including 7,000 by live fire.

A large number of the casualties have been unarmed Palestinians and medics with clearly marked clothing, which has "raised concerns" about Israel's alleged use of excessive force.

The U.N. statement said the protests have deteriorated conditions in the Gaza Strip, overwhelming a health care system already stressed by 11 years of blockade.

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DeBre reported from Jerusalem.