Efforts to restore calm as four killed during Gaza protests
Casualty numbers significantly less than feared, mainly due to Hamas intervention
Palestinian protesters run for cover after Israeli troops open fire during the clashes near the border between Israel and Gaza Strip. Photograph: EPA/Mohammed Saber
Israel and Hamas have taken the first steps to restore calm after four Gaza residents, including three teenagers, were killed during weekend protests marking a year since the start of weekly border demonstrations.
Despite the fatalities, the casualty numbers were significantly less than feared, mainly due to the intervention of Hamas stewards, wearing fluorescent vests, who managed to keep most of the more than 40,000 protestors away from the border fence. Prior to the protests, mosque loudspeakers had also warned that anyone killed in Saturday’s border clashes would not be considered shahid martyrs.
Israel had beefed up its forces and deployed more than 100 snipers with orders to prevent at all costs a breach of the border.
Even though militants fired five missiles into southern Israel overnight on Saturday, Israel reopened two border crossings into Gaza on Sunday morning as part of a package of gestures mediated by Egypt to restore calm after a week of tension that again brought the two sides close to a major escalation.
Hamas officials confirmed that Israel is offering a package of economic incentives to ease the economic blockade in exchange for calm along the volatile border.
Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said the group had received “positive signs” from the Egyptians, adding that the Egyptian team was continuing mediation efforts on Sunday to finalise a comprehensive truce.
“We will continue our marches until all our goals are achieved,” he said.
Welcoming Brazil’s president at the start of an official visit to Israel on Sunday morning, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that despite the relief measures, the Israeli army remained on high alert.
“I have ordered that the Israel Defence Forces remain fully deployed around the Gaza Strip. This includes tanks, artillery, ground forces and the air force. We are prepared for any scenario and – if need be – an extensive campaign. We will do what needs to be done for the security of Israel.”
Under the terms of the Egyptian proposals, Israel also extended the fishing zone to up to 15 nautical miles from the Gaza coast and will allow in more fuel and water and double the electricity supply.
In return, Hamas has undertaken to stop the launching of incendiary balloons and to curb its night-time border demonstrations and flotillas.
Hamas was promised that it would receive almost €27 million from Qatar every month over the course of the next half year, some of which will be dedicated to United Nations public works projects. Israel also agreed to allow Hamas to export agricultural produce not only to the West Bank, but to Israel and Europe as well.
The emerging arrangements were criticised by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the New Right party, who demanded the security cabinet meet to discuss the truce, saying Israel has lost its deterrence against Hamas.
With just over a week before the Israeli elections Mr Netanyahu can breathe a sigh of relief that he has avoided a major conflagration – for now.
But the problem of Gaza remains and residents of southern Israel have become accustomed to sleeping in bomb shelters amidst endless bouts of cross-border tension. Israelis in the centre of the country were also given a stark reminder of the Gaza problem on two separate occasions in recent weeks when sirens wailed after long-range rockets were fired from Gaza.
It remains to be seen if president Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century, expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9th election, will come up with a comprehensive arrangement to end the Gaza siege and restore a durable calm along the border.