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Israel reinforces troops outside Gaza as border protests enter seventh month

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said it was reinforcing troops around the Gaza Strip on Thursday as a precaution against incursions by Palestinians during violent protests along the border that have often been met by lethal Israeli fire.

The language of the Israeli military statement did not appear to herald any imminent offensive in Gaza but seemed to suggest stronger action at the frontier to foil any further Palestinian attempts to breach Israel's security fence during the demonstrations, which began in March.

Israel accuses Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamist group of inciting violence at the border, an allegation it denies. Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, during which time it has fought three wars with Israel, most recently in 2014.

Since the protests began in March at least 193 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, Gaza medics say. One Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian sniper.

The protesters demand the easing of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory and rights to lands Palestinian families fled or were driven from on Israel’s founding in 1948.

The Israeli military said it "decided on wide-scale reinforcements in the southern command in the coming days and the continuation of a determined policy to thwart terror activity and prevent infiltrations into Israel from the Gaza Strip".

Commenting on the deployment, Tzachi Hanegbi, a non-voting member of Israel's security cabinet, told Israel Radio: "Our wish is to prevent escalation. I hope that the other side has a similar desire."

In an interview published on Thursday in Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth daily and Italy's la Repubblica newspaper, Hamas's Gaza-based leader Yehya Al-Sinwar was quoted as saying that "a new war was not in anyone's interest" but "an explosion was unavoidable" unless Gaza's "siege" was lifted.

Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods along their borders with Egypt, a policy that the World Bank says has brought the enclave of 2 million people to economic collapse.

Hanegbi said Hamas, which is engaged with Egypt in efforts to achieve a long-term ceasefire with Israel, had "gone back to its old ways" in recent weeks by encouraging "bombs, shooting and attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on the fence".

"Therefore a mobilisation of troops is really required," he said.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams)

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