Israel shuts Gaza crossings to pressure Hamas over fire kites, border violence

Netanyahu says move to be coupled with other unspecified measures, as government comes under criticism for failing to tackle scourge of blazes caused by kites and balloons

Palestinian trucks seen at the Kerem Shalom crossing on March 22, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Amid criticism over his government’s response to ongoing violence on the Gaza border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that Israel will close the Kerem Shalom border crossing that serves as the main entry point for commercial goods and humanitarian aid into the coastal enclave.

“We will double our efforts against Hamas,” Netanyahu told his Likud faction meeting in the Knesset to the applause of party activists.

The prime minister said that the Kerem Shalom closure will be coupled with “other measures that I won’t go into.”

Speaking at his own Yisrael Beytenu party’s faction meeting, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that he had instructed the IDF “to take a number of steps” to respond to “Hamas provocations” on the border.

“They will start to understand that it doesn’t work in just one direction,” he said.

“We are not looking for a confrontation or for a military venture but in the way Hamas operates, the [situation] deteriorates and [Hamas] is liable to pay the full price, a much heavier price than Operation Protective Edge,” Liberman added, referring to the 2014 war with the terror organization.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a gift from the Ze’ev Jabotinsky Institute during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, July 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / ABIR SULTAN)

On Sunday it was reported that Hamas had begun returning its security forces to the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, the first time the terror organization has done so since the start of deadly clashes in late March.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Over the past three months, weekly clashes have taken place on the Gaza border, with Israel accusing Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover to carry out attacks and attempt to breach the security fence. The “March of Return” protests have also seen Palestinians fly airborne incendiary devices toward Israeli territory, sparking hundreds of fires in southern Israel and causing millions of shekels in estimated damages.

Immediately after Netanyahu spoke, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that Kerem Shalom wold be closed to all commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The army said humanitarian aid, notably food and medicine, would still be allowed into Gaza, but would require special permission from the military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon.

According to IDF, the idea of closing Kerem Shalom was proposed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and was approved by Netanyahu and Liberman.

Workers load medical supplies onto a truck bound for the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom Crossing on May 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The military said the closure would continue so long as Palestinians persist in launching incendiary kites and balloons into Israel.

“In light of this situation in which the Hamas terror group is taking advantage of the residents of the Strip and launching incendiary and explosive kites and balloons at the communities in the Gaza periphery… these steps are being taken,” the army said.

“If this phenomenon continues, these steps will continue and even get worse,” the IDF added.

The only cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel has been subject to a strict blockade by both Israel and Egypt for the past 11 years, meant to prevent terrorist groups from bringing weapons into the Strip.

The crossing has been closed a number of times in the past three months after sustaining damage from fires set by Palestinian protesters.

The Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel is torched for the third time in weeks by Palestinian rioters (Israel Defense Forces)

Rioters first attacked the crossing on May 4. They broke through the gates and, apparently believing they were in Israeli territory, set fire to the fuel lines, according to Israeli officials. In actuality, they were on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

A week later, following a violent demonstration along the border, vandals entered Kerem Shalom and significantly damaged the fuel terminal, as well as a conveyor belt used to bring raw construction materials into Gaza and two other belts used to transport animal feed.

In addition to closing the crossing, the army said it was prematurely ending the temporary extension to the permitted Gaza fishing zone, which had allowed fisherman to sail up to nine miles from the coast in order to take advantage of the summer fishing season.

“The fishing zone will return to a range of six miles,” the army said.

The Israeli military accused the Hamas terrorist group of encouraging Palestinians to launch incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza into Israel.

“The Hamas terrorist group is response for everything done in the Gaza Strip and for all the consequences of it. Hamas is dragging the residents of the Strip into the abyss,” the army said. “The IDF will continue to act as necessary to preserve the security interests of the State of Israel.

A balloon loaded with incendiary material is flown towards Israel by Palestinians east of Gaza City on June 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Netanyahu’s announcement came after opposition leaders slammed him for what they described as a lackluster response to the border violence and kite fires.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid told reporters earlier Monday that the prime minister wasn’t doing enough to counter airborne arson attacks.

“The prime minister has a new reason why he is doing nothing in Gaza — because he is waiting for the Americans,” Lapid said at his party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset.

“For four years he has done nothing regarding Gaza,” he continued. “He knew, we all knew that there would be a new round of violence, but he did nothing. And now the round of violence has come. Our fields are being burned.

“The army needs to be given a bigger toolbox to deal with this,” Lapid said.

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a field caused by incendiaries attached to kites flown by Palestinians, from the Gaza Strip, June 27, 2018. (Flash90)

He claimed that Netanyahu is waiting for the Trump administration to present its peace plan and has therefore not acted to stem the arson attacks from Gaza.

“One who care about security does not wait for the Americans,” Lapid charged. “He acts on his own. We cannot allow them to decide for us. We need to present our own plan.”

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay told his faction meeting that in the four years that have passed since Operation Defensive Edge, Netanyahu has “failed to provide security to the people of Israel.”

Speaking a day after the anniversary of the 2014 war, Gabbay said that the government’s efforts regarding Gaza since then have amounted to “nada and nothing.”

Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It’s clear that Netanyahu is no longer Mr. Security,” he said, referring to a nickname given to the prime minister. “Mr Security would have used the opportunity presented after the war to create a plan, to bring security, to provide us with some forward thinking. Instead: Nothing.”

Gabbay also said that the fact that Netanyahu has only visited the Gaza border communities once since the recent outbreak of violence proves that he has lost touch with the needs of residents of the area.

“Only someone who doesn’t see his citizens can allow himself not to care for them,” he said.

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