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After Gaza rockets, Israel freezes move to allow in 1,500 more workers

COGAT says Hamas bears responsibility; Israel reportedly believes Hamas will not escalate; planned expansion of permits was part of gestures amid Biden visit

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Israel on Saturday said it was freezing a planned expansion of work permits for Gazan Palestinians by 1,500 (to a total of 15,500), after terrorists in the coastal enclave launched four rockets at southern Israel overnight.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, widely known by its acronym COGAT, had announced the additional 1,500 permits on Tuesday, as part of a series of gestures ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region.

But following the rocket attacks in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz decided to freeze the move, COGAT said in a statement.

The announcement came following a fresh security assessment held by Gantz and top defense officials, including military chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, and the military liaison to the Palestinians Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian.

“The Hamas terror group bears responsibility for everything that is done in and emanates from the Gaza Strip toward the State of Israel, and it will bear the consequences,” the statement said.

There has been no claim by any of the Gaza-based terror groups for Saturday’s rocket fire.

In the first rocket attack, two rockets were launched from the Strip at the coastal city of Ashkelon. One was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, and the second landed in an open area, causing no damage.

In response, the Israel Defense Forces said it targeted a Hamas underground facility used for the production of rocket materials in the central Gaza Strip.

Concurrently, two more rockets were fired toward Israel and warning sirens were activated in the Lakhish Regional Council to the northeast of the Strip. Both rockets hit open areas, according to the IDF.

In response to the additional rocket fire, the military struck another Hamas site, which it said was used as a weapon production facility.

The IDF said the first site was “one of the largest and most important sites in the Strip for the production of base materials for rockets by terror groups,” asserting that the attack would significantly set back rocket-making.

The attack was especially significant, according to an unsourced Channel 12 news report, which said that Hamas does not currently have a large number of operational rocket production sites and those that are operational are under strain due to Hamas’s difficulty to smuggle heavy machinery into Gaza and its reliance on independent production.

The report added that the decision to carry out the strikes on the facility was made knowing that the price could be significant escalation, with the rocket attacks seen as an opportunity to take the facility out of action.

However, security officials have estimated that the attack will not lead to an escalation and Hamas has indicated that it is not interested in further escalating the situation, according to Channel 12.

The rocket fire came hours after Biden departed the country, and shortly after the American leader announced an agreement that included steps by Riyadh benefiting Israel.

The deal will see the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory on their way to the Far East. It is also expected to include the Saudis allowing direct flights from Israel for Muslim pilgrims.

In 2020, the Gaza-ruling Hamas launched a salvo of 13 rockets at the south as Israel was signing peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Biden departed from Israel earlier Friday, after a two-day trip that included meetings with Israeli leaders and a visit to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

US President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last month, Israel froze a move to add 2,000 work permits to the quota following a rocket attack on the south. The move was unfrozen four days later.

The Defense Ministry has signed off on a tentative plan to eventually raise the number of Gaza permits to 20,000, a dramatic and unprecedented increase. In mid-2021, just 7,000 Palestinians from Gaza had permits to work or trade in Israel.

Defense officials say allowing more Gazans to work in Israel will pump much-needed income into the impoverished coastal enclave while encouraging stability.

The Gaza Strip has been blockaded by both Israel and Egypt for over 15 years in an attempt to contain the enclave’s Hamas rulers. Israel says the tight restrictions on goods and people are necessary due to the terror group’s efforts to massively arm itself for attacks against the Jewish state.

Critics lament the blockade’s impact on ordinary Gazans, around 50 percent of whom are unemployed, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The sky-high poverty rates make employment in Israel a highly attractive option for those lucky enough to receive permits.

In Gaza, Palestinian workers can expect an average daily wage of about NIS 60 ($17.35). The few allowed to cross into Israel to work might get as much as NIS 400 ($115.66) per day, according to a report in Times of Israel sister site Zman Yisrael.

Tobias Siegal contributed to this report. 

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