The Israeli military was gearing up Friday for renewed violence on the Gaza border, a day after Hamas rejected millions in Qatari aid money, ratcheting up tensions on the volatile frontier.
Officials from the Hamas terror group made the surprise announcement that they would be rejecting $15 million in aid money from Qatar Thursday, days after Israel temporarily froze the transfer — part of a tacit ceasefire deal — as a punitive measure following a series of shooting incidents along the border.
The move stoked fears in Israel that Hamas, which is the de facto ruler in the Gaza Strip, could allow weekly protests along the border to become more violent after several weeks of relative calm, and could also renew rocket fire on Israeli towns.
“If no agreement is reached, the chances for violence along the border tomorrow afternoon are high,” a Gazan source told the Ynet news site.
The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday began beefing up troop presence in areas near the Gaza border. It also ]deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and in the south as a precautionary measure against potential attack from either the Gaza Strip or from the north, where the security situation has also been increasingly precarious.
Defense officials reportedly fear that the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad terror group could fire a longer-range missile from Gaza into Israel’s densely populated heartland.
Israeli officials are also worried that fighters in the Strip could carry out cross-border shooting attacks, either with light arms or anti-tank missiles, the Ynet news website reported. Some roads near the Gaza fence are expected to be closed off Friday.
The money transfer, originally slated for Wednesday, had been frozen Tuesday night by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two incidents in which Israeli soldiers were shot at along the border, including one in which a soldier was hit in the helmet and lightly injured. Israel also responded by shelling observation posts and carrying out airstrikes, killing one Hamas fighter.
Under the unofficial ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Hamas, Doha has agreed to transfer a total of $90 million to Gaza in monthly installments of $15 million. The group received the funds, in $100 bills, in November and December.
The money, $10 million of which goes to Hamas civil servants and the rest to needy residents in the Strip, was seen by defense analysts as key to calming tensions between Israel and the Palestinian enclave, which has seen regular violence along the border over the past 10 months.
Israel approved the transfer on Thursday, but moments later Hamas announced it would reject the money, accusing Israel of violating the ceasefire agreement brokered by the Egyptian military, UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov and Qatar by delaying the transfer of the money.
“We say our people and Gaza will not be part of the blackmail and the internal Zionist elections,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya said.
According to reports, Hamas had been trying to calm the situation after the Tuesday flareup to allow the money through, but the use of the cash as a carrot had increased pressure on the group to reject it and take a harder line toward Israel.
Israel’s entire security establishment had been in favor of moving forward with the transfer, including the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad intelligence service, the Shin Bet security service, and the National Security Council.
During a security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, defense officials said that it was the Islamic Jihad terror group, not Hamas, that had been behind the attacks on Israeli troops on the Gaza border the day before, and that while Israel’s shelling in response had killed a Hamas fighter, the terror group that rules Gaza has refrained from responding.
The transfer of the funds to Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, is unpopular in Israel, esecially among right wing voters who will be going to the polls on April 9. Hamas had initially seen the freeze as little more than campaign posturing from Netanyahu.
Since March, Palestinians have been holding regular protests on the border. Israel has accused Gaza’s Hamas rulers of using the demonstrations as a cover for attacks on troops and attempts to breach the security fence.
Last week some 10,000 Palestinians participated in riots along the border on Friday afternoon, throwing rocks, fire bombs and hand grenades at Israeli troops, and burning tires. Israeli soldiers reportedly responded with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire.
Over 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more injured along the Gaza border by Israeli troops since March, according to statistics from the United Nations and the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry. Hamas has claimed many of the dead as its members.
An IDF soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper in July during a riot along the security fence. A Palestinian man living in Israel was also killed by a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip in November.
Adam Rasgon and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.