Australian government discusses moving Israel embassy to Jerusalem

FILE PHOTO: The new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attends a news conference in Canberra, Australia August 24, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s government met on Tuesday to discuss whether to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, two sources familiar with the matter said, a decision that would break with decades of policy and risk angering Asian neighbors.

“Cabinet met today and the issue of moving the Israeli embassy was discussed. The decision is still pending,” said one of the sources who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Prime Minster Scott Morrison in October said he was “open” to moving the embassy to Jerusalem, following the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem in May, a move that delighted Israel, infuriated Palestinians and upset the wider Arab world and Western allies.

The Australian newspaper reported several senior cabinet members were leaning toward recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while stopping short of moving the embassy.

Jerusalem’s status is a major obstacle to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector that it annexed after a 1967 war, as its capital.

The Australian newspaper said a decision could be announced this week.

By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Morrison would be hoping to keep his conservative backbench happy but it would likely anger neighbors, including Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The Palestinian question is sensitive in Indonesia and it has refused to sign a free trade agreement with Australia until it confirms its plans toward Israel.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country. Palestinians feel equally strongly, saying that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Tourism in Bethlehem booming as Christmas nears

A tourist prays in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

By Rami Ayyub

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest Christmas season on record, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said on Monday, with hotels in the birthplace of Jesus almost fully booked for the holiday.

Tourism has recovered following a fall in knife and car-ramming attacks which helped push visitor numbers in the biblical city to a 10-year low in 2015. Bethlehem store owners also said they were benefiting from a surge of visitors to Israel in its 70th anniversary year.

Filing past a sixteen-meter Christmas tree in Manger Square, lines of pilgrims squeeze through the narrow sandstone entrance to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, a centuries-old basilica whose grotto, Christians believe, is where Jesus was born.

“We have never received this number of tourists coming to Palestine,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’ayah.

“Especially in a city like Bethlehem, tourism creates waves throughout the economy.”

A Palestinian worker carves a figurine for sale during Christmas season, at a workshop in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

A Palestinian worker carves a figurine for sale during Christmas season, at a workshop in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Hotel occupancy rates in Bethlehem are expected to exceed 95 percent by the end of December, the city’s hoteliers’ association said.

“We are fully booked during the Christmas season,” said Wissam Salsa, Manager of the Walled Off Hotel, a quirky Bethlehem guesthouse designed by the British street artist Banksy.

“But of course, our hotel is fully occupied all of the time,” Salsa added. “It is in the West Bank.”

The hotel overlooks a towering concrete section of the barrier that Israel has built through the occupied West Bank, cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Israel says the barrier stops suicide bombings, while Palestinians complain that it loops around Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, where they want to set up a state.

Some American pilgrims in Bethlehem seemed to regard their visit as a continuation of a tour through Israel, rather than a trip to a Palestinian city.

“Coming to Israel has always been on my bucket list,” said Robyn Jackson, 36, a travel adviser from Phoenix, Arizona who was shopping for souvenirs in a Bethlehem street leading to Manger Square. “Being in Bethlehem and all the places where Jesus walked is amazing.”

For one group of American travelers, Israel’s anniversary — together with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to open an embassy there — was certainly a factor.

“I think excitement has been stirred because of the embassy move,” said Keith Jiles, 55, a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia.

Tourists visit the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Tourists visit the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

“People had been afraid in the past to come. But the excitement has built. And you’re gonna see more tourism because of it,” he said.

Trump’s Jerusalem decisions delighted Israelis but infuriated Palestinians and their allies, who warned that a unilateral move could lead to turmoil and hamper U.S. efforts to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The last round of negotiations broke down in 2014.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, editing by Ed Osmond)

Divided by war, Israel and Gaza’s Instagrammers tell their own stories

Israeli teens, Meshy Elmkies (R), 16, Liam Yefet (C), 16 and Lee Cohen, 17, co-managers of Instagram account, Otef.Gaza, look at their mobile phones as they sit on a swing at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom which borders the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel November 11, 2018. Picture taken November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Rami Ayyub, Leah Angel and Nidal al-Mughrabi

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – In another part of the world they might have gone to the same schools or be sharing wifi in the same coffee shops.

Although these young women Instagrammers live just a few kilometers apart, they will likely never meet. One group are Gaza Palestinians and the other are Israeli schoolgirls living beside Gaza, with Israel’s concrete and razorwire border fortifications stretching between them.

But one thing they share is a desire to take control of their own stories. Both groups are convinced that their lives are misrepresented or misunderstood by the outside world.

The missiles have stopped flying – for the moment – and the world’s eyes have already moved on after a week which saw the fiercest rocket salvoes and air strikes since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip.

But the people of Gaza and Israel’s border communities remain, waiting for the next crisis, which is rarely long coming.

“Gaza is closed, not many have access here. With Instagram, you can show Gaza to the world through your own eyes” said Manar Alzraiy, project manager of “We Are Not Numbers”, a Gaza-based program for young writers, artists and photographers.

Her group runs commentary on destruction and conflict in the Gaza Strip but also seeks to broaden the war-focused narrative about Gaza by sharing stories of ordinary people.

“During attacks by the Israelis, we want to get our message out there. But we have to be mindful of what our group is experiencing – the stress, anxiety. We can’t always do it,” she said.

On the Israeli side, the Instagram account Otef Gaza, which means “Gaza Periphery” in Hebrew, was started by a group of teenage girls in and around Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz beside the border.

The group highlights photographs of farmland scorched by incendiary devices flown into Israel during Palestinian border protests and rockets fired by Gaza militants which send Israelis running to shelters.

“People are not aware that this is our reality, and they simply ignore us,” said Lee Cohen, 17, who co-manages the account.

“You can’t sleep because of the rocket sirens, the explosions, helicopters flying overhead and the fear of terrorists from Gaza coming in through a tunnel and trying to kill people.”

Members of 'We Are Not Numbers' team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Members of ‘We Are Not Numbers’ team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

HUMAN PROBLEMS

Inside the Gaza Strip, 225 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since border protests began on March 30, according to Palestinian health officials.

Israel says that many of those killed were militants and that its troops are defending the border. One Israeli soldier has been killed during the protests when he was hit by Hamas gunfire.

In Gaza City 27-year-old Alzraiy said the purpose of “We Are Not Numbers” was “to speak of the human problems” of Gaza.

“You get used to the feeling that at any moment, something could happen,” she said. “It’s like just for a second, you could lose your value as a human being.”

Another Gazan, Fatma Abu Musabbeh, 22, takes another approach. She insists on showing only positive images, so her account features manicured gardens and stonecraft buildings.

“When there is a war or difficult situation, I post a photo or two to tell my followers and the world that Gaza is beautiful, despite what is happening,” said Abu Musabbeh.

Across the border one of the Israeli Instagrammers, Meshy Elmkies, 16, said they use the app because it is easy to organize information, “and I personally think that teenagers have the power to make an impact.”

During a phone call with Reuters last week, the voice of her friend, Lee Cohen, suddenly became hushed.

“There’s a red alert siren,” she muttered. “Can we speak later?”

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

Netanyahu avoids early elections for now after minister’s about-face

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday avoided an early election for now after a coalition partner backed away from toppling a government hanging on to power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s U-turn surprised many pundits who had predicted the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party would quit in protest after Netanyahu rejected his demand to be named defense minister and assumed the post himself.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of the government, which has a majority of just one seat in parliament since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense chief last week.

Outflanking Netanyahu on the right, Lieberman, an ultranationalist, lashed out in his resignation announcement at the government’s acceptance of a ceasefire with Gaza’s dominant armed group, Hamas, amid a surge in cross-border violence

“You win some, you lose some,” Bennett said in a televised address, shrugging off Netanyahu’s rejection of his bid for the defense post, long regarded in Israel as its second most important cabinet portfolio.

Had Bennett pulled his party out of the weakened coalition, as Jewish Home officials had threatened, Netanyahu would have been left with a minority government, making an election likely ahead of a national ballot that is not due until November 2019.

Bennett said Jewish Home party was withdrawing all its political demands and would stand by the four-term prime minister.

SECURITY CHALLENGES

In a speech late on Sunday appealing to coalition partners to remain loyal, Netanyahu cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies.

He repeated that theme in remarks to parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, in which he said that “together we can surmount any challenge and ensure Israel’s security”.

Such comments have left political and military affairs commentators in Israel pondering whether Netanyahu is indeed planning new military action, either in Gaza or possibly against Hezbollah guerrilla missile sites in Lebanon, or engaging in political spin that would appeal to his right-wing voter base.

An opinion poll last week suggested that Israelis, including those living outside border areas that were struck by more than 400 rockets from Gaza during the flareup, were unhappy with Netanyahu over the continued threat from the Israeli-blockaded territory.

It was a rare dip in popularity for a leader who has been on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“National security is beyond politics,” Netanyahu said in his speech on Sunday. “I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”

In his own address, Bennett said he wants to believe that Netanyahu was serious about the threats facing Israel.

If so, he said, “I say here to the prime minister: “We are withdrawing all our political demands and we will stand by you in this mighty task, so that Israel starts winning again.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Richard Balmforth)

Israel’s Netanyahu takes over defense job as coalition falters

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a session of the plenum of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio in his government after his defense minister resigned this week, a spokesman for his Likud Party said on Friday, fuelling speculation of an early election.

Earlier Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, who had sought the post for himself, but the two men emerged without an agreement.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government was rocked by Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday in protest at a ceasefire reached between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu party has quit the coalition and its five MPs have withdrawn support for the government.

After Bennett and Netanyahu’s meeting, a spokesman for the PM’s Likud Party said that for now, Netanyahu would handle the defense portfolio himself.

The premier then spoke by phone with the rest of his coalition partners, urging them to “make every effort not to bring down the right-wing government” and to prevent the left from getting into power, the spokesman said.

A source close to Bennett said that after his meeting with Netanyahu “it became clear … there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

Israeli media reported that other coalition partners would oppose Bennett, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defense minister.

An election date would be decided on Sunday, the source close to Bennett said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, has also called for a vote to be held before the scheduled date next November.

Before the crisis, Netanyahu’s coalition had 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The loss of Lieberman’s five has brought him down to a perilous 61. Losing Bennett’s eight means Netanyahu would lose his majority.

Opinion polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud would be likely to remain the dominant party after a parliamentary election.

Netanyahu, a conservative serving his fourth term as premier, is under investigation for corruption. Commentators say he may agree to bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before the attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)

U.S. to oppose U.N. Golan resolution, wins Israeli praise

FILE PHOTO - Israeli kids play next to an Israeli flag next to the Israeli Syrian border at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States said it would oppose on Friday for the first time an annual resolution at the United Nations calling on Israel to rescind its authority in the occupied Golan Heights, drawing praise from Israeli officials.

The Golan Heights form a buffer between Israel and Syria of about 1,200 square km (460 square miles). Israel captured most of it from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognized internationally.

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

FILE PHOTO – A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The United States has abstained in previous years on the annual “Occupied Syrian Golan” resolution, which declares Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction in the area “null and void”, but Washington’s U.N. envoy Nikki Haley said it would vote against the resolution in Friday’s vote.

“The United States will no longer abstain when the United Nations engages in its useless annual vote on the Golan Heights,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

“The resolution is plainly biased against Israel. Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone.”

Her comments came after the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said in September that he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity, in an apparent nod towards its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

Since early in Donald Trump’s presidency, Israel has lobbied for formal U.S. endorsement of its control of the Golan. Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with other world powers, though his national security adviser John Bolton told Reuters in August a similar Golan move was not under discussion.

In the past two years, Trump has twice ordered U.S.-led air strikes against targets in Syria in response to what Washington called the use of chemical weapons against civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Israeli officials praised the U.S. move.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it “extremely important”, saying on Twitter that “no sane person can believe that it (the Golan) should be given to Assad & Iran”.

Tehran has supported Assad during the civil war and Israel has been warning against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

Israel has closely monitored the fighting in Syria, where just across the Golan frontier battles have raged in clear view.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Netanyahu faces snap election calls after defense minister quits

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker, Israel November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls on Thursday from his coalition partners to hold an early election, a day after the defense minister’s resignation left the government with a razor-thin majority.

Avigdor Lieberman quit on Wednesday over what he described as the government’s too-soft policy on cross-border violence with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The loss of the five seats of Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu faction leaves Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, raising the prospect that a scheduled November 2019 election would be brought forward.

Lieberman’s resignation takes effect 48 hours after being handed in, which he did early on Thursday. Each coalition partner will then have the power to bring down the government.

To avert a crisis, Netanyahu has been holding talks with ministers in an effort to stabilize the government.

Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, said he told Netanyahu in their meeting that the responsible step to take would be to establish a new and stable government.

“The best thing for Israel’s citizens and economy is to hold an election as soon as possible,” Kahlon said in a statement. His call was echoed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction.

Adding to the pressure, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, has demanded the defense brief by given to him.

Both Lieberman and Bennett, who compete with Netanyahu’s Likud for right-wing voters, have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

“I asked the prime minister yesterday to appoint me defense minister to fulfill one goal only – that Israel start winning again,” Bennett said at a conference near Tel Aviv.

Jewish Home said on Wednesday that without the defense brief, there would be no point in keeping the government together.

However Bennett did not repeat this in his remarks on Thursday nor did he render an explicit ultimatum to Netanyahu, with whom he is due to meet on Friday.

It was unclear whether Netanyahu would opt for an early election.

Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption, and speculation has been rife that he may bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before Israel’s attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

A poll published on Wednesday by Israel’s Hadashot television news showed Likud falling by one seat from 30 to 29 after months of surveys that have shown it gaining power. Only 17 percent of respondents were happy with Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

Israeli defense minister quits over Gaza truce in blow to Netanyahu

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the media following his party, Yisrael Beitenu, faction meting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday in protest at a Gaza ceasefire that he called a “capitulation to terror”, weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government.

“Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman told reporters, referring to Israelis subjected to a surge in Palestinian rocket attacks before Tuesday’s truce took hold.

Lieberman said his resignation, which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu, also withdraws his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition.

Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio himself, his party said. The loss of Israel Beitenu’s five seats will leave him with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, a year before Israel’s next election.

Political commentators had speculated that Netanyahu, who has high approval ratings despite being dogged by multiple corruption investigations, might bring forward the ballot.

They also saw in Lieberman’s decision to quit a bid to poach votes from Netanyahu and far-right cabinet rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, ahead of an election.

Netanyahu’s Likud played down the option of an early poll.

“There is no need to go to an election during what is a sensitive period for national security. This government can see out its days,” party spokesman Jonatan Urich said on Twitter.

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

CRACKS IN COALITION

The cracks in the coalition could soon widen, however.

In Jewish Home, which has eight lawmakers, there were calls for Bennett, now education minister, to succeed Lieberman as defense chief.

Bennett did not immediately comment. Were he to withdraw from the ruling coalition, a snap election would be inevitable. But as defense minister, he could be no less a thorn in Netanyahu’s side than Lieberman.

Lieberman and Bennett have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, even as the government authorized a Qatari cash infusion to the impoverished enclave last week and limited itself to air strikes rather than a wider campaign during this week’s fighting.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

Violence persisted on lower scale on Wednesday, with Palestinians saying a Gaza fisherman was shot dead by Israeli forces. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the troops across the border identified a suspect approaching the Gaza fence and opened fire at him.

In a separate incident, the military said troops captured a Palestinian who tried to cut through the fence and threw grenades at them.

Netanyahu cast Israel’s handling of Gaza as prudence.

“Leadership also means standing up to criticism when you know things that are classified and which you cannot share with the public that you love,” he said in a speech. “Our enemies begged for a ceasefire, and they know well why.”

Hamas saw victory in the Lieberman’s departure. On Gaza City streets, Palestinian burned Lieberman’s photo and some motorists handed out candies to passersby in celebration.

“Lieberman’s resignation is a recognition of the defeat before the growing force of the Palestinian resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “It also showed a state of weakness that has overcome the Israelis.”

Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman established an electoral base among fellow Russian-speaking immigrants. He also counts among his supporters other Israeli Jews who share his suspicions of Israel’s Arab minority or oppose the religious authority and political clout of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Peter Graff, Richard Balmforth)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after botched Israeli operation

Palestinians inspect the remains of a vehicle that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Monday after a botched Israeli undercover operation in the Gaza Strip led to fighting that killed a Hamas commander, six other Palestinian militants and an Israeli colonel.

Palestinians fired 17 rockets into southern Israel late on Sunday in response to the incursion and air strikes, which Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, said were intended to cover the retreat of a car used by the Israeli troops.

There were no reports of injuries or damage in Israel, but the military said a lieutenant-colonel, identified only as “M”, had been killed in the raid and another officer wounded.

Hamas said the Israeli actions dealt a blow to Egyptian, Qatari, and U.N. efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the Palestinian group and Israel and ease an Israeli blockade that has deepened economic hardship in Gaza.

But neither side appeared eager to pursue broader conflict.

Hamas received $15 million in Qatari-donated cash via Israel on Friday to pay for civil servants’ salaries and fuel to address Gaza’s energy crisis.

No new rocket launches were reported on Monday morning.

Violence has flared regularly along the Israel-Gaza border since Palestinians began protests there on March 30 to demand rights to land lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its creation.

Israeli gunfire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the start of the demonstrations, which have included breaches of Israel’s border fence.

Hamas said that during Sunday’s fighting, assailants in a passing vehicle opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing one of its local commanders, Nour Baraka.

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Sal

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A pursuit ensued and witnesses said Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles into the area. Palestinian officials said that in addition to Baraka, five other Hamas men and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, Israel’s chief military spokesman said the special forces had not been dispatched to assassinate Hamas commanders, a tactic that led to wider conflict in the past and which has largely been abandoned.

The spokesman, Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, told Army Radio that covert missions were mounted frequently, comments that suggested the Israeli force may have been gathering intelligence.

“During the operation, it found itself in a very complex situation, faced by enemy forces. The (Israeli) force, including Lieutenant-Colonel M., kept its cool, returned fire and evacuated itself together with the (help of the) air force back into Israel,” Manelis said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris, where he attended World War One commemorations with other world leaders. He returned home early on Monday.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)