Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot has warned the army has been given authorization to open fire ahead of mass protests on the Gaza border planned for Friday.
Eisenkot said reinforcements, including special forces snipers, had been deployed to the border to counter what he said was the most serious risk of conflict since he took up his post in 2015.
Beginning Friday, Hamas — the Palestinian resistance group that governs Gaza — 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.
"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.
Moreover, U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of the disputed city as Israel's capital in December has infuriated Palestinians who seek its occupied eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
Gazans are being urged to set up a string of protest camps along the Israeli border, each some 100 meters (yards) from the security fence, and the army is braced for attempts to break through.
"We won't allow mass infiltration into Israel and to damage the fence, and certainly not to reach the communities," Eisenkot told the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
"The instructions are to use a lot of force," he said.
"We've deployed more than 100 snipers who have been drafted from all the army's units, mainly from the special units. In the event of mortal danger, there is authorization to open fire."
Asked whether he feared a new conflict, Eisenkot said: "The chance of that happening is greater this year than it was in the first three years of my term.
"There are a lot of negative vectors in the region that are pushing towards a conflict."
Eisenkot gave a similar warning in a separate interview with left-leaning newspaper Haaretz.
"An explosive, sensitive situation is developing in the entire Middle East, but especially among the Palestinians," he said.