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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Gaza sea restrictions loosened as Egypt-led talks between Israel and Hamas progress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed as wanting to avoid a severe escalation before April 9 election

Palestinian fishermen ride boats at the seaport of Gaza City February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinian fishermen ride boats at the seaport of Gaza City February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed as wanting to avoid a severe escalation before April 9 election

Gaza’s sea restrictions imposed by Israel were loosened to the largest distance in years on Monday as Egyptian-led talks between the enclave’s rulers Hamas and Israel progressed.

Hamas said that the Egyptian-led talks involved relaxing Israel’s decade-long siege in return for calm on Israel’s border.

Israel has not commented on the negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a severe escalation in the Gaza Strip ahead of April 9 Israeli elections.

"The fishing zone in the Gaza Strip has been expanded to a maximum of 15 nautical miles (28 kilometres)," said Cogat, the Israeli defence ministry unit that oversees such regulations.

It did not say in which areas the zone would extend to 15 nautical miles. Israel has in the past extended the distance in certain areas but not others.

The distance is the largest allowed in years by Israel, which has fought three wars with Palestinian militants in the enclave and has blockaded it for more than a decade, said Miriam Marmur, spokeswoman for Gisha, an NGO that monitors restrictions on Gaza.

She however noted that it remains short of the 20 nautical miles agreed to under the Oslo accords of the 1990s.

The distance has fluctuated in recent years from between three nautical miles up to 12 in certain areas.

The relaxation of the sea blockade comes after a week-long trading of fire between the Israeli military and Palestinian groups that threatened to spark another conflict between the two.

A long-distance rocket fired from the territory injured seven Israelis near Tel Aviv last week. Israel then carried out dozens of air strikes on Hamas positions. Hamas denied any responsibility in the rocket fire but Israel holds the group responsible for any military action that emanates from the enclave.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Palestinians protested on the Gaza border to mark the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return rallies began to oppose Israel’s siege. Nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since March 30 last year, while one Israeli soldier was killed last summer by a Palestinian sniper in Gaza.

Four Palestinians were killed on Saturday during protests and clashes, but unrest was limited and fears of mass bloodshed were averted after Egyptian-led negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu, accused by far-right rivals of being too soft on Hamas, said on Sunday he ordered Israeli forces to remain at "full strength" along the Gaza frontier.

But in public remarks on Thursday, he said Israel would would only undertake a broad military campaign in Gaza after exhausting all other options. Hamas and Israel last fought a war in 2014.

Updated: April 1, 2019 03:48 PM

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