Gaza, West Bank border crossings closed for Sukkot

Gazans abort border riots as Israel reopens crossing in reported Egypt-brokered deal

Hamas-affiliated group says no demonstration on security fence for first time in two weeks, but could resume Friday; Israel said to mull more permits for laborers if calm holds

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Palestinian demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back at Israeli forces during clashes along the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on September 15, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
A Palestinian demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back at Israeli forces during clashes along the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on September 15, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The Hamas terror group ruling Gaza reportedly informed Egypt that it will work to make sure that riots on the barrier will end on Thursday evening, part of a deal that saw Israel reopen a key crossing into the Strip on Thursday.

Tensions on the Israel-Gaza border have spiked in the past two weeks as Palestinian youths have held daily demonstrations on the border fence involving violent rioting, explosives and incendiary balloons lofted into southern Israel, sparking a number of fires. Israel has responded with live fire and earlier this week shelled several Hamas posts in Gaza from the ground and air.

Despite the disturbances, COGAT, the Israeli defense body that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs, said late Wednesday that it would reopen the Erez crossing for Palestinian laborers employed in Israel, and that conciliatory measures could continue if calm was maintained. Early Thursday, workers thronged the crossing before being let through, with some resting on patches of grass as they waited to cross.

The moves came following Egyptian negotiations with Hamas, Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported. Hamas refrained from unequivocally guaranteeing that the riots would cease, sources said.

However, the Hamas offshoot that has been organizing the rallies, a group called Revolutionary Youth, announced on its Telegram channel that no rallies would be organized on Thursday, the first break in two weeks. It advised anyone who still goes to the border that they would be on their own, but also said protests could resume Friday.

Despite the apparent break in hostilities, there were a number of reports of incendiary balloons floating into Israel Thursday. The Jewish National Fund said a fire was burning in the Be’eri forest near the Gaza border, without directly blaming Gazan balloons.

Should the calm hold, Israel will reportedly consider increasing the number of Palestinian laborers allowed to work in Israel from the current 17,500 to 20,000. Other measures are also said being mulled.

Palestinians use improvised explosive devices amid clashes with Israeli security forces in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on September 27, 2023, following a protest near the border fence. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Security officials speaking to Kan emphasized that the reopening of the Gaza crossing was part of an Israeli policy of seeking to avoid collective punishment for the actions of Gazan terrorists by harming those who earn a living by working in Israel.

The Erez crossing is the sole pedestrian passageway out of the coastal enclave into Israel for Palestinians from Gaza who work in Israel. The jobs in Israel are in great demand, paying up to 10 times as much as similar jobs in Gaza.

The IDF said Thursday that it will close border crossings with Gaza and the West Bank for the start of the Sukkot holiday, starting overnight Thursday-Friday until Saturday.

Traffic related to humanitarian and medical issues and some other exceptional cases will be allowed through the crossings during the holiday closure, the IDF said.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has said that young Palestinians have organized the protests in response to surging violence in the West Bank and alleged provocations in Jerusalem.

The unrest erupted earlier this month, shortly after Hamas’s Finance Ministry announced it was slashing the salaries of civil servants by more than half, deepening a financial crisis in the enclave that has staggered under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for the past 16 years.

The sudden violence at the security fence has stoked fears of a wider escalation between Israel and Hamas, which have fought four wars and engaged in numerous smaller battles since Hamas took over the territory. Israel has responded to the rioting by shelling empty Hamas posts and shooting at protesters near the border fence. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to ramp up the strikes if the unrest continued.

But experts said that the violent protests — which have persisted with Hamas’s tacit consent for nearly two weeks now — have more to do with Hamas’s efforts to manage the territory and halt its spiraling economic crisis than a desire to draw Israel into a new round of conflict.

Clashes between Palestinian rioters and Israeli troops near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on September 25, 2023 (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

“It’s a tactical way of generating attention about their distress,” Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Palestinian research group based in the West Bank, said of Hamas. “It’s not an escalation but ‘warming up’ to put pressure on relevant parties that can come up with money to give to the Hamas government.”

Under arrangements stemming from past ceasefire understandings with Israel, the gas-rich emirate of Qatar pays the salaries of civil servants in the Gaza Strip, provides direct cash transfers to poor families and offers other kinds of humanitarian aid.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday that it had begun the distribution of $100 cash transfers to some 100,000 needy families in the impoverished territory. Disbursements for civil servants’ salaries have suffered delays since May.

Qatar’s representative in Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, said that the emirate had “succeeded in de-escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip by mediating an understanding” to reopen the crossing for workers.

“The situation in the Gaza Strip is dire, and another conflict will only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis,” he said.

An official in Gaza familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said that Israel promised Hamas a number of concessions. The measures included Israel raising the number of workers’ permits it issues for laborers in Gaza, expanding the fishing zone off Gaza’s coast and allowing the enclave to export more goods and import more equipment, he said.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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