After 3 days without rockets, Israel ends ‘sanctions’ on Gaza

Fishing zone extended back to 15 miles, 2,000 additional travel permits to be offered to Palestinian businessmen in the Strip, despite ongoing balloon-borne explosive attacks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Palestinian fishing boats moored in the Gaza seaport in Gaza City, June 13, 2019. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinian fishing boats moored in the Gaza seaport in Gaza City, June 13, 2019. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

Israel on Tuesday announced it planned to extend Gaza’s fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and increase the number of travel permits from the Strip to 2,000, following three days of relative calm in the coastal enclave, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said.

On February 5, the military restricted the permitted fishing zone down to 10 nautical miles and canceled some 500 travel permits after weeks of regular rocket fire and the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel from Gaza.

“So long as the quiet is preserved, Israel will tomorrow (Wednesday) extend the fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and add 2,000 permits for Gaza resident vendors,” Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun said in a statement.

Though there have been no rocket attacks on southern Israel since Saturday night, airborne bombs have continued to cross the border daily, including the warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade that was found in the Gaza-adjacent community of Alumim earlier on Tuesday.

Yet in his statement, Abu Rukun said the launching of these explosive devices had stopped.

The warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade, which appears to have been flown into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, is found outside the community of Alumim on February 18, 2020. (Courtesy)

He said the extension of the fishing zone and increased number of travel permits — to the highest level in recent history — would continue only if calm remains.

“So long as the quiet is preserved, Israel will act accordingly,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was planning a “big surprise” for Hamas if the terrorist group failed to rein in violence aimed at southern Israel, amid reports that Israel was contemplating the assassination of two senior Hamas leaders.

In a pre-election interview with Army Radio, Netanyahu said: “Hamas and the other terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, whose commander [Baha Abu al-Ata] we eliminated a few weeks ago, have to understand that either there is complete quiet and they rein in the rogue factions — shoot them in the knees, that’s the way — or we will have no choice but to launch our operational programs. I can’t share what they are, but I can say it will be a big surprise.”

The prime minister said he would not subject any decision on Gaza to “political timetables,” with the March 2 election less than two weeks away, adding that he would “choose the right time to take action.”

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans with protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Also Tuesday, the London-based pan-Arab website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported that an Egyptian intelligence delegation that visited the Gaza Strip did so after receiving information that Israel was planning to assassinate the two prominent Hamas figures.

The website said it had been told by sources that Cairo had persuaded Israel to suspend a decision to assassinate Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Marwan Issa, the leader of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Israel made a similar announcement about plans to end its “sanctions” against Gaza last Thursday, with a defense official saying Israel had received messages from Hamas indicating it would halt the violence along the border.

Two days later, two rockets were fired toward the community of Kibbutz Kissufim, just east of the Gaza border, in the Eshkol region, striking an open field.

Following the attack, Israel announced it would not be changing the fishing zone or adding the work permits.

The southern area has seen weeks of tension and unrest along the Gaza border, with dozens of explosive and incendiary devices being launched each day in some cases, as well as rocket and mortar fire from the Strip.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device floats after being released near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The apparent breakthrough in negotiations came after the Egyptian military and the United Nations intervened this week, sending in delegations last Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar news site, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, reported on Tuesday that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”

The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm is not restored.

No Israelis have been injured physically by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives, though some have raised concerns of the potential psychological damage caused by this extended period of tension and violence.

Israeli soldiers and artillery at a staging area in southern Israel, near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces has conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians. However, last month, a group of three Palestinians armed with explosives crossed the security fence into southern Israel from Gaza and, once surrounded, attacked a group of Israeli soldiers, who returned fire, killing the trio.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group was trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in the ceasefire negotiations.

Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and which Palestinian leaders have rejected.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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