As Eurovision delegations arrive, Islamic Jihad vows to ‘prevent the festival’

Gaza terror groups say weekend escalation a result of Israel’s failure to ease restrictions on coastal enclave in exchange for quiet in lead-up to last month’s elections

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A picture taken from Moshav Netiv Ha'asara in southern Israel shows rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory on May 4, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A picture taken from Moshav Netiv Ha'asara in southern Israel shows rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory on May 4, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

As delegations began arriving Saturday for the Eurovision Song Contest slated to begin in ten days, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza vowed to disrupt the event expected to attract thousands of tourists to Israel.

“We will prevent the enemy from succeeding in establishing any festival aimed at harming the Palestinian narrative,” PIJ said in a statement released as the Israel Air Force began pounding dozens of terror targets throughout the Strip in response to the 150 rockets fired at Gaza border towns on Saturday.

“The resistance is obligated to respond to the enemy’s aggression and to surprise it,” the PIJ statement concluded.

An official from the the joint operations room of Gaza factions, which coordinates the weekly border protests in the coastal enclave, warned Saturday afternoon that the next few hours would be “painful.”

An Israeli soldier at the scene where a house was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 4, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The statement reported by Palestinian media was released as rocket sirens blared throughout southern Israel. The Israel Defense Forces said it was investigating what set off the sirens in the central city of Beit Shemesh, which came just an hour after its air force began striking targets in Gaza.

The Gaza official added that the factions had already been in contact with Egyptian mediators as part of the latter’s effort to restore calm, but that the sides had reached a dead end.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said a 22-year-old man was killed and four people were injured by Israeli strikes. It did not say whether the casualties were people affiliated to any terror group.

Meanwhile, a woman, aged around 50, was in serious condition after being hit by shrapnel from a rocket in Kiryat Gat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the Gaza Strip. A man was in a moderate condition after he was hit by shrapnel during rocket fire in the coastal city of Ashkelon.

Women look at the damage caused by a rocket fired from Gaza that hit a house in southern Israel near the border with Gaza, Saturday, May 4, 2019 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

A spokeswoman for the Kan public broadcaster — the local media partner putting on the Eurovision — sought to calm those concerned that the weekend Gaza rocket fire escalation would impact the singing competition scheduled to take place between May 14 and May 18.

“Preparations for the Eurovision delegations are continuing as planned,” Sharon Ben David told the Haaretz daily. “The delegations landed [in Israel] and everyone is busy with the competition.” She said organizers were in constant contact with the IDF’s Home Front Command, which had not given any special orders due to the escalation in the country’s south — far from Tel Aviv where the contest is being held.

Later Saturday, delegations from eight different countries are scheduled to hold their first press conferences since arriving, where performers will likely be asked to comment on whether the developing security situation is impacting their preparations for the competition.

Workers prepare the stage ahead of the opening of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, on April 15, 2019. (Flash90)

During Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, several international performers who scheduled concerts in Israel canceled their appearances.

A Hamas official told Haaretz that the terror group chose to increase pressure on Israel after the Jewish state failed to implement a series of measures to which it had reportedly agreed in exchange for a cessation of Palestinian border protests and incendiary device-launching last month ahead of parliamentary elections.

“For two weeks now, we have warned of escalation because of [Israel’s] procrastination in implementing the understandings reached for calm,” the official said. “In Israel they asked for quiet and they received it, and in the Gaza Strip we did not feel any change for the better, so we decided to return to the harsh steps of popular protest.”

For the past several months, Egyptian intelligence officials have mediated between Israel and Hamas in an attempt to reach a long-term cease-fire. The sides were said to have made significant progress leading up to the elections with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreeing to significantly ease restrictions surrounding the Gaza Strip. This included easing movement at border crossings and expanding the fishing zone.

Smoke rises from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Saturday, May 4, 2019 (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

However, a key component to which Israel also agreed, according to Palestinian media, was allowing the monthly transfer of $30 million in Qatari aid. This month’s transfer is particularly crucial for Gazans this month as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on Sunday, during which spending will balloon.

An Israeli security official claimed to Haaretz that the delay in the transfer was merely technical: Qatar’s special envoy to Gaza, Muhammad al-Amadi, who typically facilitates the transfer, was tending to a sick relative receiving medical treatment in the US.

Also Saturday afternoon, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was holding talks with Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, Southern Command chief Herzi Halevi and other top brass. Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, was set to hold consultations at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv as well.

In light of the ongoing attacks, the IDF’s Home Front Command issued instructions for residents in affected areas to remain near protected spaces. It also limited public gatherings to 300 people in enclosed spaces only and halted agricultural work. Many municipalities opened public shelters. Beaches and national parks in the south were closed, and sporting events canceled.

The rocket attacks came a day after two soldiers were shot and injured while on patrol near the border in southern Gaza. One soldier was moderately wounded in the attack and a female soldier was lightly hurt, the IDF said.

Mourners carry the body of 22-year-old Palestinian Emad Nasser, who was killed during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence, during his funeral in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

In response to the shooting, an IDF aircraft attacked a nearby Hamas post, the army said. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said two people were killed in the strike and two others were wounded. A third Palestinian was killed during the border riots, the Gaza health ministry said, identifying him as Ra’ed Khalil Abu Tayyer, 19, adding that 40 protesters had been injured.

On Thursday, Hamas delegation and PIJ traveled to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials on a truce with Israel.

That agreement has appeared to be under stress in recent days, with Palestinians launching arson balloons and rockets into Israel and Israeli warplanes striking Hamas targets.

The military expects the coming weeks to be particularly tense, as they will see not only the Eurovision competition but also the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and the first anniversary of the opening of the contentious US Embassy in Jerusalem.

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