Egyptian mediator: Progress in talks between Israel, Hamas

Official says tentative agreement would see Gaza rulers ‘freeze’ use of airborne incendiary devices in exchange for easing of economic restrictions

Illustrative: A Palestinian uses a slingshot to fling back a tear gas canister thrown by Israeli forces during clashes at the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 8, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Illustrative: A Palestinian uses a slingshot to fling back a tear gas canister thrown by Israeli forces during clashes at the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 8, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Hamas has agreed to rein in the weekly riots at the Gaza-Israel border and put a stop to the launch of incendiary devices from the Palestinian enclave in exchange for Israeli economic concessions, a member of the Egyptian mediation team in the Strip told the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam on Saturday.

Egyptian mediators were in Gaza this week as Cairo launched a new round of mediation between Israel and Hamas in a bid to secure a lasting ceasefire deal, amid rising tensions and incidents of violence.

The Egyptian official, Talal Abu Tharefa, told the newspaper that the tentative initial agreement would include Israel restoring a key high-voltage power line to Gaza after nearly five years, allowing expanded fishing zones off the Gaza coast, and facilitating international economic projects in the Palestinian enclave, according to a Channel 13 report citing the Palestinian newspaper.

The power line in question, unused since the summer of 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, would allow up to 12 hours of electricity in the Gaza Strip, according to the report. Israel would also ease restrictions on Gazan fishermen, allowing them to travel up to 15 nautical miles off the coast, up from 6-12 nautical miles currently.

Gaza fishermen as they start fishing off the coast of the Gaza Strip on April 3, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

In exchange, Gaza’s Hamas rulers would “freeze” the use of incendiary devices which have ravaged forests and farmland in southern Israel and have posed a threat to local residents over the past year, and suspend the weekly demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border that have been held since March 30, 2018.

The Egyptian official also said Israel would allow the import into Gaza of items currently forbidden, without going into further detail, and advance international initiatives in the Strip aimed at increasing employment and development.

According to Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, Egyptian officials warned Hamas officials this week that “creating tensions on the border by launching incendiary balloons will bring the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to launch a broad military confrontation in the Strip.”

Tensions between Israel and Hamas have flared over the past week, coming to a head on Friday and Saturday as thousands of Palestinians took part in violent protests along the border, and two men, whom the IDF said were carrying a knife and a hand grenade, were arrested after crossing into Israel from the northern Strip.

On Saturday, a cluster of balloons carrying a warhead from an anti-tank missile was located in the Sdot Negev Regional Council, causing no injuries nor damage. Israeli police sappers carried out a controlled explosion. Later in the day, a mortar shell from Gaza was fired at the Eshkol region of southern Israel, landing in an open field

On Friday, a rocket from Gaza set off warning sirens in the same region, also landing in an open field. In response, the Israel Air Force carried out several strikes in the Strip, hitting a Hamas military base in the south of the territory and underground infrastructure in the north.

A screenshot from Channel 13 showing a cluster of balloons with what appears to be a warhead, Match 9, 2019.

On Thursday, Pan-Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat reported that Egyptian mediators are working hard to implement some kind of truce before March 30, the one-year anniversary of the border protests, when officials have warned of a major flare-up in violence.

Tharefa said UN Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov, as well as Qatari and other international officials, were set to travel to Gaza on Saturday for further talks.

Qatar has taken a key financial role in advancing a truce between Israel and Gaza.

In 2018, Qatar gave Gaza $200 million for humanitarian aid, fuel, and wages for Hamas clerks. In addition it gave UNRWA, the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees and their descendants, $50 million, all with Israel’s approval.

Security forces loyal to Hamas organize a line outside the central post office in Gaza City on January 26, 2019, as Palestinians gather to receive financial aid from Qatar. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Gas-rich Qatar has also committed to providing hundreds of millions more via United Nations aid organizations.

In January, Qatar signed an agreement to give $500 million to various UN agencies, most of which will be used to keep UNRWA afloat in the Gaza Strip. One project will see the UN employ 180,000 residents in an effort to reduce unemployment in the Palestinian enclave, which has soared to a rate of over 40%. Some of the funding is transferred to Gaza in the form of suitcases full of bank notes. These have been delivered monthly since November of last year.

The Qatari cash injection is part of an unofficial truce between Hamas and Israel that was supposed to see an end to months of violent protests along the Gaza-Israel border in exchange for an easing of Israel’s blockade of the coastal enclave. Israel says it maintains the blockade to prevent the smuggling of weapons and other war materials by Hamas and other terror groups sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction.

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