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IDF Southern Command chief in Qatar to discuss Gaza ceasefire – report

London-based Asharq al-Awsat cites Israeli intelligence sources as saying Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi laid out terms for a truce that will be presented to Hamas officials in Doha

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

Head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi oversees an operation to assassinate Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata on November 12, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
Head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi oversees an operation to assassinate Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata on November 12, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command was visiting Qatar this week in a bid to secure a ceasefire agreement with the Hamas terror group, the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported Monday.

According to the London-based Arabic-language daily, Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi led a delegation to Doha that included a number of other senior officials from the military, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad and the National Security Council.

They were tasked with setting terms for a ceasefire deal that would be presented to Hamas’s leadership in Qatar, including the head of the terror group’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh.

The IDF did not immediately confirm or comment on the report.

It would be Halevi’s second known visit to Qatar this year, after he traveled to Doha in February under similar circumstances to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas amid escalating tensions.

Palestinians near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip prepare to release balloon-borne explosive and incendiary devices towards Israel on August 21, 2020. (Fadi Fahd/Flash90)

The reported visit comes amid lingering tensions and low-level clashes between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, which have threatened to step up violence along the border if a new ceasefire agreement isn’t reached. Israeli officials, in turn, have threatened to carry out targeted killings against senior terrorist leaders.

Gaza terror groups have warned Israel against reinstating its policy of targeted killings, saying it would be met with a large and coordinated response, including thousands of missiles fired at Tel Aviv, a Lebanese newspaper reported on Saturday.

According to a report Saturday night, Hamas’s entire leadership in Gaza has gone underground in anticipation of possible targeted killings by Israel.

In recent weeks, terrorists in the Strip have launched hundreds of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel, fired at least 16 rockets toward Israeli communities and carried out a sniper attack against Defense Ministry contractors and IDF soldiers near the security fence.

An Israeli soldier battles a blaze close to the southern kibbutz of Nir Am that was apparently caused by a balloon-borne incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip, August 23, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In response, the IDF has conducted near-nightly reprisal raids on Hamas targets in the Strip, bombing underground infrastructure, weapons production facilities, cement factories used to make parts for tunnels and observation posts along the border.

According to Asharq al-Awsat, in exchange for halting the violence along the border, Hamas told an Egyptian military delegation it demanded that Israel approve a number of infrastructure projects, ease the blockade on Gaza, allow 100,000 Gazans to work in Israel, and extend the permitted fishing zone from 15 to 20 nautical miles.

The group also demanded the return of some UN relief programs to the Strip, and that Qatar increase the length of time it will provide aid money, as well as the amount of it that Hamas can use toward civil servants’ salaries as opposed to welfare assistance for the poor.

Palestinians receive financial aid from Qatar at a post office in Gaza City, June 20, 2019.
(Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

With Israel’s approval, over the past two years Qatar has regularly provided millions of dollars in cash to Hamas to buy fuel for the Strip’s power plant, pay salaries to its civil servants, and provide aid to tens of thousands of impoverished families.

The Qatari envoy to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, is expected to visit the Strip this week for the first time since February to deliver additional cash payments to Gaza residents.

The money has continued to arrive regularly despite al-Emadi not being present himself over the last six months. However, Israel has threatened not to allow him in this week if the incendiary balloons and rocket attacks persist.

Masked Palestinians inflate balloons before attaching flammable objects to them to be flown toward Israel, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 8, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas is under immense international pressure from Qatar, Egypt, and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov to halt its attacks, alongside pressure from the Gazan public, which is getting only three to four hours of electricity per day after becoming used to more than three times that amount, after Israel ended fuel imports in response to the violence.

In the predawn hours of Monday morning, Israeli warplanes and tanks attacked Hamas targets in Gaza in response to balloon-based arson attacks launched against Israel the day before, the army said.

The IDF said it attacked “military posts and underground infrastructure of the Hamas terror group in southern Gaza.”

Illustrative: An IDF soldier stands in front of a fire near Kibbutz Be’eri in southern Israel that was sparked by a balloon-borne incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip, August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Throughout the day, dozens of balloons carrying explosives and incendiary devices were launched into southern Israel, causing at least 28 fires, officials said.

Due to the continued launching of explosive and incendiary devices, a security source said Israeli authorities were preventing vehicle imports from passing through the Erez crossing with Gaza.

“Following the continued violation of security stability, and following the decision to close the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with the exception of humanitarian equipment, it will be noted that the import of vehicles, which has so far been carried out through the Erez crossing, was stopped as well starting today,” the source told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The move follows Israel’s gradual closure of the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing to all materials except for humanitarian aid and its banning Palestinian fishermen from using a demarcated fishing zone, as part of efforts to pressure Hamas to halt the balloon launchers.

Aaron Boxerman, Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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