Gaza protests resume, but IDF chief sees rare ‘opportunity’ to reach ceasefire

Gaza protests resume, but IDF chief sees rare ‘opportunity’ to reach ceasefire

Remarks come as Palestinians in the Strip gather at the border following a 3-week hiatus; 27 Gazans wounded as hundreds riot

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi meets with the mayors of Gaza-adjacent towns on December 6, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi meets with the mayors of Gaza-adjacent towns on December 6, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Friday said Israel had a “special opportunity” to reach a long-term ceasefire with terror groups in the Gaza Strip, even as Palestinians in the enclave resumed weekly violent protests along the border.

The army chief made his remarks during a meeting with the mayors of Gaza-adjacent communities on Friday morning, in which he updated them on the security situation in the area.

Kohavi’s remarks came hours before the start of Palestinian protests along the Gaza border, following a three-week hiatus after a large-scale battle between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second largest terror group in Gaza, last month.

Some 4,000 Palestinians took part in the protests with several hundred rioting and throwing rocks and explosive devices at IDF troops, who responded with tear gas and occasional live fire.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 27 Palestinians were injured.

The military deployed snipers and other troops to the border area ahead of the protests in case rioters attempt to breach the security fence or otherwise pose a threat to the nearby Israeli communities.

Meanwhile the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah said a 22-year-old man was critically injured by Israeli fire in the West Bank town of Beit Ummar near Hebron, Haaretz reported. He was taken to a Hebron hospital and was undergoing an operation.

The circumstances of his injury were not immediately clear.

Palestinian rioters clash with Israeli troops during a protest along the border with Israel east of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip on December 6, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

During the meeting, Kohavi indicated that Israel believed it could negotiate an oft-discussed long-term ceasefire agreement with the Hamas terror group, which is the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip. The army chief said this is due to the success of the IDF’s recent two-day battle with the Islamic Jihad, an operation that was dubbed “Black Belt.” Unlike in previous rounds of fighting, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, stayed on the sidelines.

“The IDF’s actions in ‘Black Belt’ succeeded due to the resilience of residents of the [Gaza] periphery and your leadership, and it allows us a special opportunity to create a different reality in the region,” Kohavi told the mayors.

Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya making a statement to the press on January 24, 2019. (Screenshot: Al-Aqsa TV)

On Thursday, Hamas’s deputy chief in the Gaza Strip, Khalil al-Hayya, denied that the terror group was approaching a long-term ceasefire deal with Israel.

“The talk about a calming for ten years or a halt of the resistance’s actions against the enemy is completely untrue,” Hayya told the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper in an interview.

“We are a resistance movement. The forms of [our] action may change, but we will not stop resisting the enemy,” he said, adding that weekly protests in the border region between Israel and Gaza constitute “one of the forms of resistance.”

For more than the past year, Hamas has negotiated a series of unofficial ceasefire understandings with Israel.

The understandings have largely entailed Israel lifting restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza in exchange for Hamas and other terror groups in the coastal enclave maintaining relative quiet in the border region.

However, the informal agreements have not put an end to cross-border violence, as both Israel and terror groups in Gaza have recently participated in several short flareups.

During the fighting last month, the Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state, which responded with many retaliatory strikes in Gaza, killing 34 Palestinians, more than half of them members of terror groups.

Since March 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in the protests along the frontier on most Fridays, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state.

The protests have included frequent rioting with rocks, explosives and fire bombs hurled at IDF soldiers who respond with tear gas and live fire. At least 200 Palestinians have been killed, according to the health ministry.

Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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