The Israeli navy fired warning shots at a flotilla that set sail from a Gaza Strip port on Saturday in the latest attempt to breach the maritime blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave.
The fleet of some 40 boats turned back to Gaza after the warning shots were fired.
Saturday’s flotilla was part of the Hamas-led “March of Return” protests, which organizers said was aimed at highlighting the importance of lifting the blockade on the Strip, a provision outlined in a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas currently under negotiation.
“It sends a message to the Palestinian factions involved in the negotiating the ceasefire agreement that we will not agree to any solution that does not include lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip,” organizers said, according to the Ynet news site, just before setting sail.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, violently seized the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.
Israel and Hamas, which have fought three major conflicts since the Islamist Hamas seized Gaza, have again come close to serious conflict in recent weeks after four months of violence along Gaza’s border during the “March of Return” protests. The protests were declared by Hamas as designed to “erase” the border and ultimately destroy Israel.
There have been several major flare-ups of violence, most recently on Wednesday-Thursday when Gaza terrorists fired 180 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, including a rocket that targeted Beersheba, and the IDF carried out reprisal raids on military targets in Gaza. Three Gazans were reported killed in the Israeli raids.
The protests have also seen almost daily airborne arson attacks from Gaza caused by kites and balloons rigged with incendiary devices flown across the border that have sparked large fires that destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed wildlife and livestock.
Large turnout at the protests has also been driven worsening conditions in the strip. Power is on for just a few hours a day, unemployment has sky-rocketed, and poverty is widening.
According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, 167 Palestinians have been killed since the protests began on March 30. Hamas and other terror groups acknowledge that dozens of the dead were their members.
The ministry said that three Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in Friday’s border protests, during which rioters threw petrol bombs and rocks at Israeli troops and, in one case, a grenade. There were also several attempts to breach the border fence.
Egypt and the United Nations have been working to negotiate a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, but neither side has officially responded to the agreement.
The Israeli security cabinet and the Hamas leadership met separately on Thursday, with the truce offer on the table.
Later Thursday, Hamas’ Al Aqsa TV channel reported that the Egyptian-brokered deal took hold “on the basis of mutual calm.”
Neither Israel nor Hamas officially confirmed any ceasefire had gone into effect, but on Friday, an Israeli official told Hadashot TV news that no ceasefire deal was ever reached.
On Saturday, Gazans launched a number of incendiary devices across the border, including a giant kite that landed on power lines near a kibbutz, sparking five fires in Israeli communities near Gaza.
In response, the IDF said it carried out two airstrikes on kite and balloon launching cells in the Strip.
Critics point to worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza. There have been many reports that the coastal strip is “on the verge of collapsing,” and could plunge into a new round of fighting with Israel if conditions do not improve.
Egypt, too, has kept its Gaza border crossing largely closed during several years of sour relations with the Islamist group ruling Gaza.
Last week, the Israeli navy intercepted a Swedish boat attempting to breach the maritime blockade on Gaza. Seven Swedish activists were detained aboard the ship and later deported. The Swedish government later slammed Israel for the seizing the vessel and detaining its citizens as a violation of international law.
In July, the Israeli navy seized the “Freedom for Gaza,” and arrested the 22 passengers who were attempting to breach the blockade on Gaza. Norway also panned Israel for intercepting the vessel carrying medical aid, and has asked the government for an official explanation of the incident.
Israel defended the legality of the seizure, recalling that a 2011 UN report found its naval blockade on Gaza was legal. Israel has said that humanitarian aid to Gaza can be sent in overland after security checks.
AP contributed to this report.