Dozens of Israeli tanks mass around Gaza ahead of Friday protests
Israel ramped up its military presence along the fence separating it from the blockaded Gaza Strip on Friday morning in an apparent show of force, a day after it launched deadly air strikes after a Palestinian rocket destroyed a home in southern Israel.
With Thursday's deployment clearly visible from main Israeli roads near Gaza, senior Egyptian security officials met leaders of Hamas, the de facto ruling party of the besieged enclave, to try to calm tensions.
A Reuters photographer counted some 60 tanks and armoured personnel carriers at a deployment area near the strip, calling it the largest number he has seen there since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
The deployment came as Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy for the Middle East, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that "we remain on the brink of another potentially devastating conflict, a conflict that nobody claims to want, but a conflict that needs much more than just words to prevent".
Hamas on Thursday pledged to launch an investigation into the rocket fire after denying, along with Islamic Jihad, any involvement in the attack.
Israel, which killed one Palestinian and injured several others in Wednesday's air strikes, rejected the denials.
Much may depend on the scope and intensity of a planned Palestinian protest near the fence separating the enclave from Israel on Friday, where protests in which hundreds of Palestinians have been killed have been held over the past six months.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet on Wednesday after the rocket attack, pledged to take "very strong action" if such attacks continued.
"We must land a strong blow against Hamas. That's the only way to lower the level of violence to zero or close to zero," Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying on Tuesday, after Israeli forces shot at a group of Palestinians allegedly trying to send incendiary balloons into Israeli neighbourhoods near Gaza that morning.
He added that Israel should take a hard line "even at a price of moving to a wide-scale confrontation".
In August, Israel carried out air strikes against sites allegedly used to make incendiary balloons and kites, and the ensuing exchange of fire between the Israeli army and armed Palestinian factions brought both sides close to war.
'Gaza is imploding'
In Gaza, a Palestinian official said the Egyptian delegation was also in contact with Israeli leaders to curb the current tensions.
"The situation is delicate. No one wants a war," he said.
Gaza is imploding. This is not hyperbole. This is not alarmism. It is a reality
- UN envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov
"Palestinian factions are demanding an end to the Israeli blockade that strangled life and business in Gaza," the official told the Reuters news agency.
On Thursday, Mladenov, the UN envoy for the Middle East, said that with its economy in a freefall and tensions rising with Israel, Gaza was crumbling.
"Gaza is imploding. This is not hyperbole. This is not alarmism. It is a reality," Mladenov told the UN Security Council.
He cited World Bank figures showing official unemployment at 53 percent, with more than 70 percent of Palestinian youths jobless in the small coastal territory.
Every second person in Gaza now lives below the poverty line, he said.
"Barring substantial steps to reverse the current course, this precarious sense of calm is doomed to give way under the mounting pressure. It is already beginning to fray," he said.
Great March of Return
Palestinians have been protesting every Friday since 30 March as part of the Great March of Return.
The protest campaign calls for an end to the 11-year Israeli blockade on Gaza and for Palestinian refugees' right of return to the lands that their families fled during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Since the demonstrations began on 30 March, the Israeli army has killed more than 205 Palestinian protesters and wounded thousands more, according to Gaza's health ministry.
One Israeli soldier has been killed over the same period.
Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.
Israel maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip, which critics say amounts to collective punishment of the impoverished enclave's two million residents.
Egypt also upholds the siege, restricting movement in and out of Gaza on its border.