GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - Gaza's embattled Hamas rulers are imploring people to march along the border with Israel in the coming weeks in a risky gambit meant to shore up their shaky rule, but with potentially deadly consequences.
Beginning Friday, Hamas hopes it can mobilize large crowds to set up tent camps near the border. It plans a series of demonstrations culminating with a march to the border fence on May 15, the anniversary of Israel's establishment, known to Palestinians as "the Nakba," or catastrophe.
The group aims to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people for the effort, though it hasn't been able to get such turnouts at past rallies. Nonetheless, a jittery Israel is closely watching and vowing a tough response if the border is breached.
"When we march to the border, the organizers will decide then what to do," said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official. Warning Israel against targeting the protesters, he said "the occupation should not commit any stupidity in confronting the Palestinian crowds."
Hamas says the demonstration is meant to draw attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Gazans whose relatives fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.
But the first-of-its-kind protest also comes at a low point for the Islamic militant group and the 2 million residents of Gaza, where conditions have deteriorated since Hamas seized control of the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007.
An Israeli-Egyptian blockade, along with three wars with Israel and a series of sanctions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have left Gaza's economy in tatters. Unemployment is well over 40 percent, tap water is undrinkable and Gazans receive just a few hours of electricity a day.
An Egyptian-led attempt to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement took a major downturn earlier this month after a bombing targeted a convoy carrying Abbas' prime minister and security chief shortly after they entered Gaza. Abbas has blamed Hamas and threatened more financial pressure, such as cutting civil servant salaries or fuel purchases, to force the group to cede control.
"Hamas has realized it's besieged from three sides; Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority," said Mkhaimar Abusada, political science professor at Gaza's al-Azhar University. "It feels the crisis is suffocating.''
He said that for Hamas, the protests can divert attention from their domestic woes while avoiding renewed war with Israel. "They think busying Israel with this issue may put it under pressure," he said.
As Gaza's woes have mounted, Hamas' popularity has plummeted, and it remains unclear whether the group will be able to mobilize the crowds it envisions. Still, a combination of social pressure and curiosity in a territory with few options for recreation could help attract people.
On Tuesday, bulldozers were busy leveling the five camp locations from north to south. Trucks unloaded portable toilet stalls, and the Palestinian Scholars Union, which represents Islamic clerics, declared participation in the protests a religious obligation.
The demonstrations will begin after the Muslim noon prayer on Friday. Buses will carry people from all over Gaza to the five tent camps, situated hundreds of meters (yards) from the border fence.
Hamas and Hamas-allied organizers of the "Great Return March" say the sit-in will remain peaceful through May. But the ultimate plan is to move to the border in mid-May.
Organizers say they are trying to realize the "right of return," a Palestinian demand that descendants of refugees who lost their homes in 1948 should be able to return to lost family properties in what is now Israel.
Israel opposes any large-scale return of refugees, saying it would destroy the country's Jewish character. The fate of refugees and their descendants has been a core issue in past rounds of peace talks.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yoav Galant, a retired general and member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner Security Cabinet, said that Israel had set clear red lines.
"Hamas is in distress," he said. "They are using in a cruel and cynical way their own population in order to hurt them and to hurt Israel."
He said the military was well-prepared to prevent any infiltrations. "We will try to use the minimum force that is needed in order to avoid Palestinians wounded and casualties. But the red line is very clear. They stay on the Gazan side and we stay in Israel."
Violent skirmishes are expected even before May 15. Clashes have erupted along the border every Friday since Dec. 6, when President Donald Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital and announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv.
There have been a series of recent incidents along the border, including a bombing that wounded four Israeli soldiers last month. On Tuesday, three Gazans armed with hand grenades managed to cross into Israel and travel some 30 kilometers (20 miles) before they were caught.
Israel's military said its tanks fired at Hamas positions after Palestinians set fire near the border on Wednesday. It said it views "with great severity any attempt to damage the security fence." No casualties were reported.
The upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover, Israeli Independence Day celebrations in April and the planned move of the embassy in May could lead to additional clashes.
Israel's Foreign Ministry called the planned marches "a dangerous, premeditated provocation meant to fan the flames of the conflict and increase tension."