x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israel and Hamas grope for a truce

In the worst bloodshed since the 2008/2009 Gaza operation, armed groups firing mortars and rockets could be fighting in defiance of Hamas, which may find itself unable to make them stop.

JERUSALEM // Israeli leaders and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers yesterday called for ending a four-day surge in fighting that has killed at least 19 Palestinians. But Israel's prime minister warned that his country was prepared to "respond with even more force".

Militants in Gaza launched about 120 mortars and rockets into Israel during the weekend, according to Israel's military, including a barrage yesterday morning that struck the Israeli port city of Ashkelon.

While third-party mediators are rumoured to be brokering an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, took a particularly combative tone in remarks before his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday. Speaking to reporters, the Israeli leader warned that if "the criminal attacks against the Israeli military and civilians continue, Israel will respond with even more force".

During the meeting, he also praised the military and said "If attacks on Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers continue, the response will be very harsh."

The violence is fast becoming the worst flare up since Operation Cast Lead, Israel's three-week war on Gaza that began two years ago, and has raised fears of another large-scale confrontation.

In a rare appearance on Israel Radio yesterday, Ghazi Hamad, Hamas's deputy foreign minister, said Hamas would stop attacks in return for an end to Israeli military operations in Gaza. "We are interested in calm but want the Israeli military to stop its operations," he said.

His comments came after Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said Israel would do the same, if Hamas first halted the barrages of rockets and mortars from Gaza.

Mr Barak, who was also speaking to Israel Radio, said that if "they stop firing on our communities, we will stop firing. If they stop firing in general, it will be quiet, it will be good". Mr Barak did not rule out another war, but he strongly hinted his desire to avoid such an outcome. "Restraint," he said, "is also a form of strength."

Israel's military has struck Gaza with air strikes and a limited number of ground forces after a Hamas-fired anti-tank missile exploded on an Israeli bus last Thursday. Two civilians, including a 16-year-old boy, were injured in that attack.

Since then, multiple armed groups in Gaza have been claiming responsibility for firing rockets and mortars at Israel, even as Hamas has pushed for halting the violence.

It is not clear if Hamas has given these armed groups, some of which oppose its rule in Gaza, approval to attack Israel. Nor is it clear if Hamas can adequately restrain them.

So far, the Israeli military said, its operations in Gaza have been aimed at 11 squads of militants that "deliberately targeted civilians" with rockets and mortars, as well as smuggling tunnels and weapons facilities.

In retaliation for Thursday's bus attack, Israel also confirmed that it killed on Saturday Tayser Abu Snima, a senior Hamas operative suspected to have been involved in previous rocket attacks on Israel and in the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Hamas officials announced yesterday the arrest of several "collaborators" with Israel. A statement posted on the Hamas interior ministry website said: "In the past couple of days, the internal security forces detected several collaborators with the Zionist occupation who were working to destabilise security in Gaza".

Collaborating with Israel is considered to be a treasonous offence and although such verdicts are subject to appeal, they can result in capital punishment. Two accused collaborators were executed by a Hamas firing squad last April. The Islamist group used the killings to mark the beginning of a high-profile campaign to root out suspected collaborators in Gaza.

In a statement particularly critical of Israel's response to the attacks, Turkey's foreign ministry yesterday urged an end to the fighting, warning that the "region cannot be allowed to enter into a new spiral of violence".

"We strongly condemn the excessive and disproportionate reprisals of Israel that have injured and killed civilians in Gaza," the statement said.

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae