Israelis protest near Gaza demanding repatriation of captives

Kibbutz Yadmoldzai, Israel (AP) — Hundreds of Israelis protested near the Gaza Strip on Friday, demanding the return of a prisoner and two held by the region’s radical Hamas rulers. The remains of an Israeli soldier.

The protest took place in tensions rise A senior Palestinian militant was arrested in the occupied West Bank earlier this week. Israel has closed roads near Gaza and sent reinforcements to prepare for possible retaliatory attacks.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited communities near Gaza on Friday, saying authorities were preparing “operations to neutralize threats in the area,” without elaborating.

The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who along with Oron Shaul were killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds their remains, as well as two Israeli civilians who strayed into Gaza and are believed to be mentally ill, hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Protesters crossed two police checkpoints on a road near the heavily fortified Gaza border before stopping at a third.

They held a large sign demanding the return of the soldier’s remains and Avraham Mengistu, an Ethiopian-Israeli man in his 20s or 30s. Mengistu’s family participated in the protest.

Hamas in June posted a rare video Another captive, Hisham al-Sayid, an Arab citizen of Israel, is shown lying on a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask and IV drip. It said his health had deteriorated recently. Journalists covering the protests did not hear any mention of Said.

Israel and Hamas are sworn enemies, having fought four wars and dozens of skirmishes since Hamas took control of Gaza 15 years ago.

During this period, Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight seal on the territory. Israel says the shutdown is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents.

Israel said there would be no major move to lift the blockade until the remains of soldiers and captured civilians were released. Israel and Hamas have held rounds of talks mediated by Egypt over a possible exchange.

Gantz also warned Hamas and other militant groups that Israel would not tolerate threats to communities near Gaza.

“We will act with internal resilience and external strength to restore daily life in southern Israel,” he said. “We do not seek conflict, but we will not hesitate to protect our citizens if needed.”

The latest escalation began when Israeli forces arrested a senior member of the Islamic Jihad militant group in the West Bank town of Jenin late Monday. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

Gaza Islamic Jihad official Ahmed Mudalal said the group, through an Egyptian mediator, had made demands to Israel, including the release of the detained militant and another prisoner, a halt to attacks on the West Bank and relief from Gaza blockade. They have yet to hear back, he said.

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Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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