Israeli tanks struck Hamas observation posts on Sunday night in retaliation for the launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza and disturbances at the border, the army said in a statement.
Israeli defense officials believe that the security incidents on the border with the Gaza Strip over the past few weeks are part of an attempt by Hamas to pressure Israel to honor its commitments toward the militant group made as part of understandings reached last year.
Hamas resumed late Saturday nighttime operations along the border fence, which it suspended last year after reaching those understandings. It said five Palestinians were wounded by live fire or sponge-tipped bullets during those operations and evacuated to the hospital.
The nighttime operations represent another escalation, following two weeks of incendiary balloon launches at Israel. Palestinian groups have also announced weapons tests, including launching upgraded missiles at the sea. Hamas officials say all this activity is meant to send a message.
The operations, whose location and timing is dictated by Hamas, are designed to attract media attention. The operatives come to the border every night and make a lot of noise to disrupt life in nearby Israelis communities. However, Hamas has avoided using firearms so far, reflecting a desire to keep the flames at a low level.
A ruling handed down by the Be’er Sheva District Court last month shows how the nighttime squads operate. The court sentenced an 18-year-old Rafah resident to 34 months in jail for participating in such a squad last October.
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During this operation, the court said, he tried to cross the border into Israel, “hurled blasting caps, burned broken appliances, shouted through loudspeakers and burned tires, with the goal of making noise and keeping Israelis who live near the border from sleeping.”
The recent increase in tension stems from Hamas’ desire to put implementation of the understandings back on Israel’s agenda, according to the defense officials. Israel postponed their implementation prior to its last election. The unity government formed after them has been having trouble making decisions, and now, talk of new elections has Hamas worried that implementation will be postponed again, the officials said.
If that happens, they added, Hamas fears that public anger in Gaza will be aimed at it.
Hamas is also trying to send messages to all the parties concerned that it wants Qatar’s cash payments to continue, that it wants Egypt to ease the passage of people and goods through its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, and that Israeli communities near Gaza won’t enjoy quiet if the understandings aren’t implemented.
Nevertheless, the militant group isn’t interested in a major escalation that would endanger its achievements over the past two years on issues like water, electricity and sewage infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza continues to worsen. On Sunday, the Gazan energy authority said the territory’s only power plant will shut down on Tuesday because Israel has stopped letting in the fuel needed to run it. Gazans already get only eight to 12 hours of power a day, and since the plant provides around 40 percent of Gaza’s electricity, its shutdown would significantly reduce that amount, the authority warned.
The plant provides around 80 megawatts of power, while Israeli power lines provide the other 120 megawatts. An Egyptian power line had previously provided an additional 25 megawatts, but that line shut down in February 2018. The power authority said Gaza needs more than 500 megawatts a day.
Even now, only three of the plant’s four turbines are actually in operation, it added. Each turbine requires around 150,000 liters of fuel per day.
Also on Sunday, Gazan fishermen who tried to put out to sea said they were surprised to be shot at by Israeli naval ships. Some fishing boats were damaged. An organization representing the fishermen said the closure causes them great harm, and they were given no advance warning of it.
Hamas talks with Egypt
A senior Hamas official said Hamas is currently discussing arrangements for the visit with Egypt, and it could take place as soon as Monday. Over the weekend, Hamas official Khalil al-Haya said the visit would be a positive step toward preventing escalation.
A key issue Hamas plans to raise in the talks with Egypt is the implementation of earlier understandings with Israel on promoting calm. These understandings included projects that could ease both the internal pressure in Gaza and tensions with Israel.
“Letting in dual-use goods is an extremely important step, as is letting workers from Gaza enter Israel to work,” the senior official said on Sunday. “So is moving forward with an industrial park at the Erez crossing and a long list of other infrastructure projects.”
The official accused Israel of treating some of the understandings as bargaining chips and failing to move forward on anything essential.
“Now they’ve closed the sea to us as a punitive measure, and also stopped the entry of fuel,” he said. He acknowledged that if Hamas stops launching incendiary balloons at Israel and conducting nighttime operations near the border fence, “Israel will restore the fuel, reopen the seas and let in Qatari money to pay $100 per family.” However, he noted: “They’re giving us the feeling that the matter will end there and we’ll be back where we started. It’s impossible to make progress this way.”
Sirens in Sderot
Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz said Sunday that the army will respond forcefully to the rockets and explosive-laden balloons launched from the Gaza Strip on Saturday.
In a situation assessment with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Gantz said that Hamas was responsible for the launches from the Strip, adding that “as long as there is no quiet in Sderot, there will be no quiet in Gaza.”
Alert sirens rang out around the city of Sderot, near the border, around 1 A.M. A military statement confirmed that two rockets had been intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Police said a house near Sderot had taken a direct hit from a rocket. An Israeli man of 58 was lightly injured by broken glass, a statement by emergency rescue service Magen David Adom said.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and senior police officers conducted a situation assessment in Sderot on Sunday. “In a few days, we’ll know whether we’re heading toward a broader escalation or calm, given the Egyptian delegation’s expected arrival in Gaza,” Ohana said afterward, adding that the government and the army were preparing for both scenarios.
The fire and rescue service said Sunday that incendiary balloons had ignited at least 28 fires near the Gaza border during the day. Since the launches resumed two weeks ago, they have sparked 149 fires, the service added. Most of the fires were in the Eshkol Regional Council, but some have broken out farther from the border, in Netivot and the Sdot Negev Regional Council.