This week’s escalation in the Gaza Strip, involving two shooting attacks on Israeli troops who responded with tank fire followed by an aerial attack, is apparently closely connected to tension with Palestinian prisoners at Israel’s Ofer Prison in the West Bank. Israeli defense officials believe that members of the Islamic Jihad were involved in the Gaza incidents, the same organization at the center of a confrontation at Ofer.
The tension at Ofer Prison erupted about ten days ago following an incident in a wing of the facility housing Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners. After inmates attacked a member of the prison staff, a wide-scale search of the prison was carried out, in which metal detectors prompted suspicions that an "emir" of the Islamic Jihad at Ofer had cellphones inside his body.
As is regular procedure in such cases, the prisoner was put in isolation under guard, and it was only when he defecated no less than nine days later that two cellphones and a telephone keyboard emerged.
The security prisoners, whose contact with the outside world is under strict supervision and considerable limitations, have been investing major efforts in smuggling cellphones into prison in the course of family visits or by other means. Defense sources have said that an entire industry has developed around this activity and that militant groups are investing tens of thousands of shekels in the smuggling.
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The continued searches and the isolation of the prisoner leader sparked nervousness among the Islamic Jihad inmates at Ofer. On Sunday, the prisoners declared a hunger strike and refused to leave their cells for meals. The Israel Prison Service responded by relocating Islamic Jihad prison leadership to other detention facilities and with raids that turned up another five cellphones.
Prison staff at Ofer was then reinforced with special prison service units. In clashes, prison staff members and prisoners were injured. Against the backdrop of the tension, the leadership of other Palestinian prisoner factions – Hamas and Fatah – announced that they would be joining the hunger strike. The leadership from Fatah, which had not been enamored over the confrontation, was dragged into it by other, more radical organizationss out of concern that Fatah would be portrayed as insufficiently patriotic. There are now about 1,000 prisoners on hunger strike, from all of the Palestinian organizations.
The crisis at Ofer Prison, which has only been tersely reported on in the Israeli press, has been widely reported on in the territories and has generated considerable tension. That appears to be one of the reasons for the rise in violence on the Gaza border on Tuesday.
In the meantime, for close to two weeks, Israel has been delaying the monthly transfer into the Strip of funds from the Gulf state of Qatar. In November, agreement was reached permitting Qatar to send $15 million per month into Gaza, which is to be used to pay the salaries of civil servants in the Hamas government there and to provide assistance to needy families.
Israel agreed not to put obstacles in the way of the money transfers and in addition, agreed to increase fuel shipments into Gaza that the Qataris are paying for (and which make it possible to boost electricity supplies in the Strip). Israel consented on the condition that Hamas reins in the violence at demonstrations along the Gaza border.
The transfer of the funds has been causing embarrassment to the Israeli government with the approach of the upcoming April 9 Knesset election and criticism from Habayit Hayehudi party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as defense minister in November. On one occasion, Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Amadi was photographed with suitcases full of banknotes.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any official announcement, decided not to allow the monthly transfer of funds into Gaza. Hamas officials were furious at Israel but also made efforts to supervise the border demonstrations in the hope that it would pave the way for the transfer of the funds. Last Friday’s border demonstration was in fact relatively restrained and no Palestinians were killed by Israeli army sniper fire.
But the dependence on the shipments of funds from Qatar and Hamas’ readiness to rein in the violence has sparked controversy inside Gaza. The leadership of Hamas has been accused of abandoning the doctrine of “muqawama,” resistance to Israel. For its part, Islamic Jihad has had an incentive of its own to carry out terrorist attacks, in the wake of the events at the prison.
Initially on Tuesday shots were fired from Gaza at Israeli army forces and workers who were involved in the construction of a wall in the Sderot area to block border tunnels from the Strip. Later, in what appeared to be an effort to lure in Israeli troops, Palestinian children threw stones at the border fence in the central Gaza Strip. Israeli troops were dispatched to the scene and when the soldiers got out of their jeeps, sniper fire was directed at them.
One bullet hit the helmet of a paratroop company commander who was standing at the head of the troops. He was lightly scratched. In a similar incident, about six months ago, another Israeli army officer sustained moderate wounds.
In light of the incidents, Israel has decided for the time being to suspend the transfer of the Qatari funds. On the other hand, the army’s response to events has been limited: two tank fires directed at Hamas positions. A member of the military wing of Hamas was killed and two others from the military wing were wounded. Later, the Israel Air Force attacked a Hamas camp in Gaza. At this point, Hamas has not responded to the IDF operations.
In practice, it appears that both sides would have preferred that the Qatari funds be transferred and that relative calm prevail, at least for another few weeks. But the transfer of the funds and the media coverage that it gets are politically difficult for Netanyahu. Things are also being complicated by internal criticism of Hamas within the Gaza Strip and the tensions at Ofer Prison with Islamic Jihad.