An Egyptian delegation held talks with Palestinian factions in the besieged Gaza Strip into the early hours of Thursday morning to try to calm the ongoing escalation between Hamas and Israel ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the Great March of Return protests.
Sources close to the meeting told Mada Masr that, after being unable to secure adherence to a number of Israel-issued demands for a ceasefire, the delegation, led by Egyptian General Intelligence Services officer Ahmad Abdul Khaliq, closed the meeting with Hamas senior leader Yahia al-Sinwar and other factions and left Gaza on Thursday afternoon via the Erez crossing to deliver the Palestinian factions’ rejection to Israeli authorities.
Israeli media have reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the border with Gaza later on Thursday, where Israel has been amassing tanks over the past several days.
“I’ve ordered to bolster our forces and to prepare for a major campaign. All Israeli citizens should know is that if we need to enter a major offensive, we’ll enter it strong and after exhausting all other options,” the prime minister is quoted as saying during the visit.
In the largest offensive Gaza has witnessed in months, violence escalated across the Israel-Gaza border earlier this week, with Israel launching over 60 airstrikes into the Palestinian enclave after a long-range rocket attack injured seven Israelis north of Tel Aviv early on Monday.
Following a brief and fragile Egypt-mediated ceasefire, cross-fighting continued across the border into Tuesday. A source close to Hamas told Mada Masr at the time that disagreement over adherence to its principles largely left the agreement as “nonexistent,” despite Egypt’s pressure on Hamas to halt the launching of all rockets.
The Gazan Health Ministry has reported that seven Palestinians have been wounded in the strikes, and at least 530 homes have been damaged in Gaza since the offensive began, according to the Ministry of Public Work and Housing.
Israel’s message to Hamas, conveyed through the Egyptian delegation on Wednesday evening and the early hours of Thursday, was much as it has been in the repeated flare-ups between the two sides.
A source close to the Wednesday night meetings between Hamas and Egypt, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that Israel demanded a halt to the nighttime disturbance units and the launching of incendiary balloons, in exchange for long-promised United Nations development projects, expansions to the fishing cordon, and the inflow of more goods into the besieged coastal city.
This was in addition, the source added, to a demand that Hamas would prevent any violent protests on March 30.
Hamas, however, rejected these demands, communicating to the Egyptian mediators that Israel must make good on its promises before demanding anything else, according to the source, who added the Hamas leaders do not plan to scale back protests ahead of March 30.
The one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return protests, which have seen a broad popular push against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land each Friday for the last year, have also been a site of political maneuvering. Curtailing the extent of the protests was the key part of a deescalation deal brokered by Egypt last October.
The anniversary has brought the protests into the political spotlight again, with Hamas in the midst of trying to quell widespread public protests against poor economic conditions as Israel gears up for an upcoming election.
For Hamas, the anniversary serves as a chance to “repair” the damage done to its popular base after it launched a widespread detention campaign marked by excessive use of violence against protesters who have turned out to demonstrate against the economic situation in Gaza under the banner “We Want to Live” over the past few weeks.
One of the protesters who was detained told Mada Masr that he was arrested during his participation in the protest in the city of Deir al-Balah and was forcibly disappeared for several days before being released.
At the start of the week, a source close to Hamas told Mada Masr that the Gaza faction would move forward with protests along the border after the 10-day temporary ceasefire had lapsed without an Israeli response, putting the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, on alert for military escalation.
“The decision comes not only because Israel did not play its part,” the source told Mada Masr at the time, “but because there’s been a collective agreement among Hamas leaders that the resistance situation needs to be repaired after recent protests in Gaza, where security forces attacks and arrested hundreds of Gazans protesting against poor living conditions.”
The escalation between Hamas and Israel this week has put a temporary halt to the anti-Hamas protests, according to a source close to the organization of the demonstration, who adds that there is an intent to have them start up again once tensions have calmed.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, at least 266 Palestinians have been killed and more than 30,000 have been injured over the course of the protests, in which one Israeli soldier has been killed.