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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Israel talks war and pounds Gaza after rocket hits southern city

Israeli minister calls for large military operation to bring ‘quiet’ back to border

Fighters of Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) attend the funeral of Naji Al-Zaaneen in Beit Hanun town in the northern Gaza Strip. EPA
Fighters of Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) attend the funeral of Naji Al-Zaaneen in Beit Hanun town in the northern Gaza Strip. EPA

The next 48 hours are crucial to averting a major escalation between Israel and Hamas and salvaging hopes of a long-term ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt, the UN envoy to the Middle East peace process said on Wednesday as Israel threatened “great force” on Gaza in response to overnight rocket fire.

Israel carried out dozens of strikes in Gaza early on Wednesday after a rocket was fired from the enclave and landed in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, destroying the home of a family who had fled to a shelter. The strikes killed one Palestinian, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Tensions threatened to boil over as Israeli ministers pressed the country’s leader to launch a large military operation on the Hamas-ruled territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country’s military was ready to respond “with great force” after a rocket launched from Gaza landed in a southern Israeli city early Wednesday.

Gaza’s rulers Hamas said it had no involvement in the rocket fired at the city of Beersheba, which caused major damage to a family home, and said it rejected “all irresponsible attempts” to undermine Egyptian attempts to seal a long-term ceasefire between the movement and Israel.

Nikolay Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said the rocket fire was a “dangerous escalation” and “fit a pattern of provocations that seek to bring Israel and Gaza into another deadly conflict and confrontation”.

He said “de-escalation on the ground” in the next two days is crucial to the survival of ongoing Egyptian and UN efforts to secure a truce between Israel and Hamas.

“I am afraid that there is no more time for words. Now is the time for actions. And we must see very clear actions on all sides that bring the situation to a de-escalation. Otherwise, the consequences will be terrible for everyone,” he said.

The exchange of fire once again escalated tensions that have been simmering since March after the beginning of weekly rallies against Israel’s crippling siege of the territory. Israeli snipers have killed more than 200 people, many of them unarmed protesters, at the border rallies and wounded hundreds more.

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Egypt sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, but postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday's surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system is to be deployed near the Gaza border in response to the rocket attack. Israel also closed both its border crossings with Gaza in reprisal and cut naval restrictions to three miles off the Gazan coast, further isolating the blockaded enclave where deteriorating living conditions have stoked violent protests along the border.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman had already called for a military operation in Gaza a day before the rocket launch. He said a “serious blow” to Hamas would result in four or five years of quiet on Israel’s border with the enclave.

After Palestinians protested several days following the delivery of fuel into the territory, he called it the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and said Israel had exhausted all options for a de-escalation.

“Now is the time to make decisions,” he said. “We need to strike a serious blow at Hamas. That’s the only way to bring back quiet.”

Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and fears of a fourth have spurred efforts by Egypt and the United Nations for a wider deal that would see Israel ease its blockade in exchange for a long-term truce with the movement.

Analysts see a further escalation brewing and believe that, while both Hamas and Israel do not want war, the room for compromise is becoming smaller with every day that passes and every exchange that takes place.

"Israeli threats of a military operation against Gaza if the Great March of Return doesn't stop are real threats,” says Waled Almoudala, a political science lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“Some parties want to ruin the Egyptian efforts of achieving a truce between Gaza and Israel by launching the rockets. Gaza is an undisciplined playground, so to launch a rocket is not something difficult to do,” he continued.

The next week will be crucial to preventing an outbreak of conflict in the territory, with another Friday protest planned in Gaza, the UN and Egypt in intense negotiations to ease tensions and Israeli ministers ratcheting up their war talk.

“The situation is serious. It won’t take too much to drag the sides back into a circle of escalation that leads to war. Last night’s exchange of fire is a good example,” says Hugh Lovatt, Middle East and North Africa policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“We will have a good indication on Friday where things are heading – based on whether Hamas continues to escalate protests, and if there is an indication from Israel that it will allow a resumption of fuel deliveries,” he said. “Otherwise, all bets are off.”