Israel Braces for Renewed Gaza Border Protests as Hamas Threatens to Avenge Fighters Killed by IDF

The military will reexamine its deployment along the fence to protect soldiers from Palestinian sniper fire

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Palestinians react with bloodied hands outside a Hamas outpost that was struck by Israeli bombardment near Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, July 20, 2018.
Palestinians react with bloodied hands outside a Hamas outpost that was struck by Israeli bombardment near Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, July 20, 2018.Credit: AFP

With Gaza border protests growing more militant, Palestinian factions in the Strip called on Thursday for mass participation and acts of “popular resistance” in marches at the border on Friday.

The statement was issued a few hours after Hamas’ military wing said it was on high alert in Gaza and urged all the Palestinian forces in Gaza to cooperate via a unified command. The organization threatened to avenge the deaths of the three fighters killed on Wednesday in an Israeli attack on a Hamas outpost east of Gaza City. An IDF soldier was wounded that day, and on the previous Friday, the marches claimed their first Israeli fatality when a Palestinian sniper killed Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi.

>> To maintain Gaza cease-fire, Hamas expects more from Israel than just incentives | Analysis

The army intends to reexamine its deployment along the fence in order to protect soldiers from such fire. The IDF said it is determined to locate the sniper who shot Levi and is not ruling out the possibility of assassinating him.

Nine projectiles were fired at Israel from Gaza early Thursday, the army said, following several days of violent clashes in Gaza. Most of the rockets fell in open areas close to the border. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted one rocket, the army said. No damage or casualties were reported.

The defense establishment’s assessment is that Hamas will try to maintain a low level of violence at these demonstrations, seeking to avoid an unwanted deterioration and a worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which could lead to a civil uprising there. Last weekend the IDF attacked dozens of Hamas targets and Israel expected a sharp response.

The lack of response was interpreted as evidence that Hamas is not interested in stoking the flames.

There is sweeping agreement in the IDF that at this stage there is no need for a large scale operation in Gaza, despite some bellicose statements by cabinet members. Senior IDF officers repeat this assessment at every meeting with decision makers. For the army, the most important goal at present is the completion of the protective wall along the border, which is perceived as a strategic change in the balance of power vis-à-vis Hamas.

Construction is slated to end by the end of 2019 and the army would prefer not to be dragged into an extensive round of fighting until then.

Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eisenkot ordered construction work to continue despite tensions in the region and attempts to interfere with the work.

On the streets of Gaza the issue that seems to concern people most is the situation with UNRWA, where sanctions continued on Thursday and the hundreds of employees fired or whose contracts weren’t renewed held a protest rally at UNRWA offices. The organization believes the layoffs were largely due to shortages in a fund into which the U.S. had paid about $100 million a year, and the organization was trying not to hurt its food assistance program for 1 million Gaza recipients. Palestinian economists see the decision and blow to UNRWA services as a “heart attack” for the Palestinian public in Gaza and cautioned against the possible outcomes.

The defense establishment supports the restoration of the previous level of goods transferred across the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Over the last two months Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing over which Israel has no control, and the IDF worries that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are exploiting this to smuggle in war materiel.

A senior Hamas source told Haaretz that the organization has made it clear to international figures, including in the Arab world, who are trying to prevent a violent escalation that Gaza expects to see a comprehensive plan to remove the blockade, not a short-range plan for humanitarian aid alone. The source said Israel has sought to bring about such an arrangement to keep residents of the Strip in the same cage they have been in for 11 years – an enclave strip under siege with an occasional easing of restrictions that ignores the general plight amid a rapid rise in population.

“In the Strip there are people who want to live, it’s not a zoo that only needs to be fed,” the source said.

Hamas said UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov held a second meeting in as many days with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh. Their agenda focused on the escalation that took place on Wednesday and the fears it could deteriorate and lead to a wider conflagration. Haniyah also met with Egyptian intelligence head Gen. Abbas Kamel, who has been in Washington and is expected to visit Gaza and Ramallah soon as part of efforts to advance Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

The army is rejecting criticism of its decision not to destroy Hamas border positions, saying it wants to allow Hamas operatives to man them again to impose order in the area after things settle down.

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