Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Gaza militants launch barrages across border, Israel hits back with air strikes

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Palestinian militants on Tuesday launched their heaviest barrages against Israel since the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli aircraft struck back in a surge of fighting after weeks of border violence.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from either side after the Israeli military said more than 25 mortar bombs and rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip in several salvoes in the morning and afternoon.

Israeli planes attacked at least seven facilities belonging to armed group Islamic Jihad and the territory’s dominant Hamas movement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “powerful” response.

The Israeli military said several of the projectiles fired from Gaza were shot down by its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten, damaging its walls and scattering the playground with debris and shrapnel, about an hour before it was scheduled to open for the day.

There was no claim of responsibility from any of the militant groups in Gaza, but the attack comes after Islamic Jihad vowed to take revenge after three of its members were killed by Israeli tank shelling.

Violence has soared along the Gaza frontier in recent weeks during which 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations for a right of return to ancestral lands now in Israel.

A Hamas spokesman defended Tuesday’s attacks as a “natural response to Israeli crimes”. In similarly phrased remarks, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said “the blood of our people is not cheap”.

Gaza residents said at least seven training or security facilities belonging to Islamic Jihad and Hamas were hit in the Israeli air strikes.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the target sites. The powerful explosions shook buildings nearby, causing panic among rush hour crowds on streets and in markets. The Gazan Ministry of Education said shrapnel from one missile flew into a school.

The Israeli military said it was “carrying out activities in the Gaza Strip”, without elaborating.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was deeply concerned by “the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza towards communities in southern Israel”.

Calling for restraint by all parties, he said at least one of the mortar bombs “hit in the immediate vicinity of a kindergarten and could have killed or injured children”.

Amid international condemnation for its use of lethal force at the mass demonstrations, Israel said many of the dead were militants and that the army was repelling attacks on the border fence. Palestinians and their supporters say most of the protesters were unarmed civilians and Israel was using excessive force against them.

BLOCKADE CHALLENGE

Organizers of the Palestinian border protests launched a boat from Gaza on Tuesday in a challenge to Israel’s maritime blockade of the enclave.

“I want to make a future for myself, I want to live,” said Ehab Abu Armana, 28, before he and 14 other protesters boarded the boat. The Israeli navy was widely expected to stop the vessel, which the organizers said would be accompanied for a short distance by several other boats.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014 and Israeli settlements built on occupied territory which Palestinians seek for a state have expanded.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Israeli fire kills Palestinian at Gaza border, with more frontier protests ahead

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fire killed a Palestinian at the Gaza border on Thursday and another died of wounds suffered several days ago, health officials said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead in a week of frontier protests and violence to 19.

The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted an armed militant near the security fence along the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians began a six-week-long protest last Friday in tent encampments along the fenced border of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million ruled by the militant Hamas Islamist group.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

The latest deaths are likely to add to international concerns over the violence, which human rights groups have said involved live fire against unarmed demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life. Israel says it is doing what is necessary to defend its border and prevent it from being breached.

Sixteen Palestinians died after being shot by Israeli troops on the first day of the protest, Palestinian medical officials said, and another was killed on Tuesday.

A 33-year-old man, hit by Israeli fire a few days ago near one of the tent cities, died on Thursday, the health officials said.

The military said that during the protests its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the border fence or rolling burning tyres and throwing rocks.

Some of the dead were identified by Palestinian militant groups as members.

LETHAL FORCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s deaths and appealed to those involved to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties or place civilians in harm’s way.

U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun, commenting on the violence, has said lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described most of those killed as “terrorists …active in the armed wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. The two groups advocate the destruction of Israel, which along with the West, regards them as terrorist organizations.

Many of the demonstrators who turned out for the start of the protest campaign returned to their homes and jobs over the week. But organizers expect large crowds again on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

Hamas announced on Thursday it would pay $3,000 to the family of anyone killed in the protests, $500 to Palestinians critically wounded and $200 to those who sustain more minor injuries.

Israeli leaders have said payments by Palestinian authorities to the families of militants killed or imprisoned by Israel encourages attacks on Israelis. Palestinians revere brethren killed in the conflict with Israel as martyrs.

Visiting the frontier this week, Lieberman warned protesters “against continuing the provocation and said that “every person who comes close to the fence is endangering their lives”.

Protesters have been stocking up on tyres and say they intend to burn thousands of them at the border and also use mirrors and lasers to distract Israeli sharpshooters across the frontier on Friday.

Speaking on Army Radio, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: “We are prepared for every scenario, even an attempt to cause sharpshooters to lose focus.”

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority.

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians are furious at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Its eastern half was taken by Israel in a 1967 war and is wanted by Palestinians for the capital of a future state.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by William Maclean)

Flare-up with Israel tests Hamas effort to keep Gaza on low boil

Schoolgirls stand next to bus stop bomb shelters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip January 8, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lee Marzel

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – The worst fighting on the Gaza Strip front since 2014 is being calibrated by Hamas, which wants to signal defiance of Israel and the United States while being careful not to trigger a new war for the enclave’s penned-in Palestinians.

Since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians in Gaza have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortars – a third of all such attacks in 3-1/2 years of relative quiet.

For Israel’s part, though residents in the south have raised a clamour for harsh retaliation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has counselled caution and targeted mostly unmanned Hamas facilities in night-time airstrikes.

The careful moves reflect the balancing act maintained both by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, and the Israeli government, old foes who share a reluctance to go to war again.

Gaza’s neighbourhoods still bear the scars of the destruction caused by Israeli attacks during a seven-week conflict in 2014. In Israel, there is little eagerness to endure the daily sirens warning of rocket strikes.

But ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are keenly aware that even a single incident – a rocket causing multiple fatalities in Israel or Israeli forces killing a militant leader – could set off a conflagration that would be beyond their leaders’ control.

Two Hamas gunmen have died in retaliatory Israeli air strikes and 15 protesters from Israeli gunfire.

“The recent weeks of rockets and Israeli bombardment proved an explosion is possible,” said Gaza political analyst Akram Attalla. “How long will Hamas continue to take Israeli strikes to its positions without a response? And how long will Israel’s Netanyahu tolerate internal criticism? There is no guarantee.”

While there have been no Israeli fatalities or serious injuries in the rocket strikes, farmers in communities close to the Gazan border think twice about tilling fields where they might be exposed and children practice duck-and-cover drills should air raid sirens sound.

“Lately we do feel that there is more presence of the army. We have been told to be more careful, to clear the bomb shelter just in case. You never know when the next rocket will come,” said Hila Fenlon, resident of the farm collective Nativ Haasara.

Hamas has responded to Trump’s move by mobilising mass protests at the border and turning a blind eye to other factions firing into Israel in two weeks of daily attacks, which have tailed off recently.

“This saves face for Hamas, as it appears to be the one that stands behind these protests without the need to go to war,” said Attalla.

A more violent response was tamped down in debate among Palestinian factions who agreed that an armed confrontation could erode the international support Palestinians have won diplomatically and shift attention from the political process.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said no-one should underestimate the potential for hostilities to resume under what he called an Israeli occupation, however.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the territory in 2005 but remains the conduit for the passage of goods and supplies most of its electricity. Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain tight restrictions on the passage of Palestinians through their borders with the enclave.

“The situation in Gaza is very difficult and is not tolerable and is doomed to explode,” he told Reuters.

IRANIAN SUPPORT

Israel sees an outside catalyst for the violence – Iran, which both Hamas and its sometime ally Islamic Jihad say has pledged unlimited assistance for them as the Syrian civil war, where Tehran deployed reinforcements for Damascus, winds down.

Israel has gone out its way to blame Islamic Jihad and other groups for the rocket and mortar attacks, rather than Hamas, and even gave grudging credit to Hamas for being mindful of Palestinian civilian needs.

“Calls to respond with full force against Hamas are irresponsible,” the top Israeli general, Gadi Eizenkot, said in a speech last week. He noted Gaza’s “danger of humanitarian collapse”, which, he said, had forced Hamas to engage with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and secured a renewed power supply to the enclave.

Israel also has problems elsewhere.

Having neutralised much of the rocket threat from Gaza with their Iron Dome interceptor system, and hard at a work on an underground wall that would block guerrilla tunnels from the territory, Israeli defence officials say they worry more about Iran and the combustible northern front with Syria and Lebanon.

They also fear that the $1.1 billion sensor-equipped barrier on the 60-km (37-mile) frontier could tempt Gaza militants to use their tunnels to strike Israel before they lose them.

A range of economic initiatives have been broached, from the construction of an island off Gaza to handle direct imports by sea to the issuing of more permits for Palestinian labourers or agricultural exports to enter Israel.

“There is an effort to help the (Palestinian) population in a way that will not go to the armed wing of Hamas,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, which has prepared a 180-page memorandum on the Gaza crisis.

Israeli concern about worsening Gaza’s internal problems has put it at odds even with the Trump administration, which has threatened to cut U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that provides essential aid for Palestinian refugees in the enclave, supporting and administering hundreds of schools and dozens of health facilities.

Israel says funds should be cut gradually and UNRWA should ultimately be dismantled and its responsibilities transferred to the United Nations’ global refugee agency.

Cutting aid to UNRWA would spell “huge pressures on Gaza’s residents,” said Saleh Naami, another Palestinian political analyst.

Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesman, agreed.

“While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defence establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all alternatives are worse for Israel,” he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)

Six killed as Israel destroys Gaza tunnel

An Israeli soldier walks near the border line, between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in Israel October 30, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Six Palestinian militants were killed on Monday when Israel blew up what it said was a tunnel being dug across the Gaza Strip border.

A source for the Islamic Jihad militant group said Arafat Abu Marshould, head of the faction’s armed wing in central Gaza, was killed along with a senior associate and two other gunmen. The group said it had put its fighters on “full alert.”

The armed wing of the Islamist Hamas group said two of its gunmen were killed while trying to rescue Islamic Jihad men working in the tunnel. Gaza health officials said nine people were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party, said “groundbreaking technology” aided the tunnel’s discovery, but gave no details.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

During the last Gaza war in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces and threaten civilian communities near the frontier, a counterpoint to the Iron Dome anti-missile system that largely protected the country’s heartland from militant rocket barrages.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the tunnel destroyed on Monday was in the process of being dug from the Gaza town of Khan Younis across the border, where it was blown up.

Asked by reporters if Hamas, rather than another armed faction, had dug it, Conricus said: “I cannot confirm that.”

“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) does not intend to escalate the situation but stands prepared for a variety of scenarios,” Conricus said. “The working assumption is that this is not the only tunnel that Palestinian terrorist organizations are trying to dig.”

“We see Hamas as being responsible for any attempt emanating from its territory, and carried out by people who are under its authority, to impinge on our sovereignty,” Netanyahu told the Likud lawmakers, stopping short of accusing Hamas directly of digging the tunnel.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab in a statement said Israel’s bombing of “a tunnel of the resistance is a terrorist aggression” and Palestinian resistance factions retained the right to respond “at the suitable time”.

Hamas reached a reconciliation deal with Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority earlier this month, a decade after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a brief civil war.

Israel and the United States have called for Hamas to be disarmed as part of the pact so Israeli peace efforts with Abbas, which collapsed in 2014, could proceed. Hamas has rejected the demand.

On Saturday, UNRWA, the main U.N. welfare agency for Palestinians said it had discovered “what appeared to be a tunnel” underneath one of its schools in Gaza on Oct. 15 and had sealed the cavity.

 

 

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet Lawrence)