Palestinian factions: Temporary ceasefire ‘fragile,’ rests on Israel abiding by agreement to ease blockade
 
 
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza - Courtesy: Palestinian Embassy in Cairo
 

A fragile weeklong ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza took hold early Monday morning, halting a weekend in which both sides exchanged heavy fire.

Twenty-five Palestinians were killed in Israel’s heavy bombardment of the Strip, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, including two pregnant women, a four-month old baby, a one-and-a-half year-old toddler and a 12 year-old child. Four Israelis were killed in a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire, according to the Israeli military.

A Hamas-run television channel announced in the early hours of Monday that a ceasefire had been reached and would come into effect at 4:30 am local time. Although Israel has not confirmed the truce, the military said it had lifted protective measures — such as restrictions on public gatherings and school closures — that have been in place in the south of Israel since the flare-up began.

Although the terms of the deal — which was brokered by Egypt and the United Nations — have not been officially disclosed, senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials in Gaza tell Mada Masr that it is based on a week-long truce during which Israel is expected to take measures to ease the blockade of Gaza, by implementing the first stage of a deal brokered by Egypt between Israel and Palesinian factions last month.

According to Hamas spokesperson Abdel Latif al-Qanoua, the measures include guaranteeing the entry of goods into Gaza, ensuring the smooth transfer of funds, expanding the permitted fishing zone to 15 nautical miles after Israel once again reduced it to 6 nautical miles, and halting attacks on protesters taking part in the weekly Great March of Return demonstrations.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials stressed that the escalation in violence over the weekend came as a result of Israel not holding up its side of last month’s agreed-upon deal.

Islamic Jihad spokesperson Musab al-Barim says that, for the first two weeks, Israel began fulfilling parts of phase one of the deal but then delayed implementing the rest of the agreement, such as the construction of a gas supply pipeline to Gaza’s only power plant, or the laying of a direct power line from southern Israel (known as Line 161) to help alleviate Gaza’s electricity crisis. He says that even though Qatar provided funds to Tel Aviv for the power line, Israel took no steps toward implementing it over the past month.

Barim also points to the continued shooting of demonstrators taking part in the return marches. (Since the Great March of Return protests began in March 2018, at least 279 Palestinians have been killed — mostly by Israeli sniper fire — and over 31,000 wounded, including over 7,600 shot by live ammunition, according to the UN.)

“[Israel] committed to not fire on peaceful protesters at the border except in cases where violent clashes are taking place, but Israeli soldiers shoot at any Palestinian youth approcahing the border from a distance of 150 meters, even if they are not engaing with them,” Barim says. “It was agreed a month ago that Israel would use tear gas against anyone who reaches the barbed wire on the Gaza-Israel border. But Israel did not fulfill this, so the Palestinian factions decided to escalate.”

According to a Hamas source close to the negotiations, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Hamas officials informed Egyptian mediators on April 28 that, in response to Israel’s failure to implement its side of the deal, they would no longer prevent protesters at the weekly return marches from using confrontational tactics, including launching incendiary balloons.

The following day, on April 29, a rocket launched from Gaza landed in the sea off Israel’s coast. While Hamas characterized previous rockets fired toward Israel last month as “unintentional,” the Hamas source says this rocket “was not a mistake of any kind.” Palestinians factions in Gaza, “especially Islamic Jihad,” were looking to force Israel to ease the blockade, the source says.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad said their main goal was to get Israel to abide by its agreements, even if that means a military confrontation,” the source says. They also warned that they would respond to any continued targeting of Palestinians taking part in the return marches.

On Friday, May 3, Israeli snipers shot dead two Palestinians during the return marches. Islamic Jihad militants responded by shooting and wounding two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated with an airstrike that killed two members of Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, bringing the situation to a boiling point.

The armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad unleashed a barrage of rockets towards Israel, totalling nearly 700 over the weekend. “The Israelis do not respect any agreements and we need to retaliate for our martyrs,” a Hamas military source told Mada Masr. “The Israelis should learn their lesson now.”

Israel ramped up its attack with an intense aerial bombardment and tank fire, hitting 350 targets, according to the Israeli military. The bombing leveled multistory buildings, including the Gaza office for the Turkish state-run news agency, Anadolu. The Israeli military also claimed it killed a Hamas commander in a targeted assasination, sharing a video of the strike.

Monday’s ceasefire came after the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS) Abbas Kamel held talks in Cairo over the weekend with Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas’ political bureau in Gaza, and Ziyad al-Nakhaleh, secretary general of Islamic Jihad.

Sinwar and Nakhaleh had previously been invited to Cairo for a meeting to discuss matters regarding border security between Egypt and Gaza, according to Hamas spokesperson Salah al-Bardawil. The flare up in violence began on the day the two officials left Gaza for Cairo and the focus of the talks quickly shifted to negotiating a ceasefire.

An Islamic Jihad senior leader, Ahmad al-Mudallal, tells Mada Masr that the group will respect the ceasefire but Israel’s conduct will determine the outcome. He stresses that if Israel does not implement the terms, such as opening border crossing to allow goods into Gaza and refraining from harming demonstrators, then it would not be upholding the truce. He adds that the return marches will continue until Israel implements the first phase of last month’s deal.

“The general mood is fairly stable, as a result of Egyptian efforts,” Yousef al-Hasayneh, a member of the political bureau of Islamic Jihad, tells Mada Masr. Though he says Israel has a deadline of just one week to begin implementing its side of the ceasefire deal.

Meanwhile, Barim, the Islamic Jihad spokesperson, tells Mada Masr that Egypt is pressuring Israel to respect the terms of the deal and would stand by Palestinian factions if Israel reneges on its committments. He stresses that the ceasefire is very fragile and is predicated on Israel fulfilling demands to ease the siege and allow for a decent life for Palestinians in Gaza.

For the past 12 years — ever since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 — Israel, along with Egypt, has imposed a crippling blockade on the Strip and living conditions have steadily deteriorated to among the worst in the world. Last year the UN concluded that Gaza had become “unliveable.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he had given instructions to maintain the additional artillery and armored forces deployed along the Gaza separation fence. However, on Tuesday, Netanyahu approved the renewal of fuel deliveries to Gaza, according to Haaretz. The transfer of goods through border crossings is expected to resume at midnight on Thursday.

Also on Tuesday, Qatar announced it is sending USD $480 million to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Qatar allocated $300 million to support the Palestinian Authority’s budget for the health and education sectors. The other $180 million will go to urgent rescue and humanitarian support. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh welcomed the Qatari aid, saying, “This honourable decision is a continuation of the unwavering Qatari stances that support the Palestinian people politically and financially.”

Barim says that Palestinian factions reject the equation of calm in return for calm, arguing that calm will only come when Israel fulfills its side of the deal. “The mechanisms of the deal must be implemented in the agreed-upon period. We will not stand by with our hands tied behind our backs.”

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Ahmad Shehada 
Marwan Mostafa