Israel to reopen Gaza crossing, extend fishing zone if quiet remains

Defense minister says easing of restrictions is intended to show Palestinians in the Strip that calm is ‘in their best interest’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minsiter Avigdor Liberman visits the Kerem Shalom Crossing on July 22, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minsiter Avigdor Liberman visits the Kerem Shalom Crossing on July 22, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday announced that Israel would reopen the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza and extend the Strip’s permitted fishing zone on Wednesday morning, provided there is no violence from the coastal enclave until then.

The defense minister said this was meant to be a sign to Palestinians in the Strip that “maintaining the quiet is first and foremost in the interest of Gaza residents.”

The decision was announced following a meeting between Liberman and a number of senior defense officials on Tuesday afternoon.

“During the discussion, it was decided that if the relative quiet along the Gaza border that began this week continues until tomorrow morning, the Kerem Shalom Crossing will reopen at 9 a.m. tomorrow and the fishing zone will be extended back to nine nautical miles (10.4 miles) from the coast,” from the current six, his office said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Kamil Abu Rokon, a representative from the Shin Bet security service and other senior defense officials took part in the meeting, Liberman’s office said.

Firefighters extinguish a blaze near the southern city of Sderot caused by an incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

While defense officials were meeting, four incendiary balloons launched from the Gaza Strip landed outside Kibbutz Erez in the Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel, though they failed to spark a fire, according to a local government spokesperson.

It was not immediately clear if the news of the latest airborne arson attack had reached Liberman or affected his decision. The minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned by incendiary kites and balloons from the Strip since March 30, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, speaks with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, right, and other senior military officers during a visit to the Gaza Division on August 13, 2018. (Shahar Levi/Defense Ministry)

Israel closed the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the main goods crossing into the beleaguered Palestinian enclave, on July 9 to everything but food and medical equipment, following weeks of violence along the border, including arson attacks.

Israel also severely restricted the Gaza fishing zone, a significant source of revenue for the beleaguered enclave, forcing Palestinian fisherman to remain within three nautical miles (3.5 miles) of the coast.

Fuel and gasoline shipments into the Strip have been allowed at some points and frozen at others, depending upon the intensity of attacks from the Strip.

This week, Israeli authorities noted a significant drop in incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave.

On Sunday evening, a spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services said that Sunday marked the first day in several months that no fires had been caused by incendiary balloons flown from Gaza toward Israeli communities bordering the coastal enclave. However, he later said it appeared that at least one fire was started by the the arson devices.

The Fire and Rescue Services said one fire was started on Monday in Israeli territory by an incendiary balloon. However, a security source disputed that the blaze was started by arson.

Senior Israel officials maintain the country has not agreed to a ceasefire that Hamas announced late Thursday and said went into effect at midnight. Hamas, a terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, claims the deal was mediated by Egypt and other regional players.

The apparent truce came after two days of spiraling violence that saw some of the heaviest exchanges of fire between Israel and the Gaza terrorist organization since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. During the flareup, Hamas fired over 150 rockets and mortars into southern Israel which responded with about the same number of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

A police officer inspects the damage to a construction site in the southern Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border following a rocket hit, on August 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior Israeli officials have said that “quiet will be met by quiet,” implying that the country is not seeking an escalation of violence, but has not openly committed to an end to hostilities. Instead, military officials hope the terror group has internalized the damage Israel can cause to its infrastructure.

Despite the apparent truce and reprieve in rocket fire, violence has continued on the border, and Israeli tanks struck two Hamas posts in the Gaza Strip Friday evening after a grenade was hurled at troops and amid intense violence during mass riots in several locations along the border.

Around 9,000 Palestinians participated in the violent weekly border protests. Some protesters rioted near the fence, threw makeshift bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and burned tires to create a smokescreen. In one incident, a grenade was thrown at Israeli troops, but caused no casualties. Several attempts were made to breach the security fence.

Palestinian protesters wave their flag as they gather during a demonstration at the Israel-Gaza border, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 10, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Said KHATIB)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said three Palestinians were killed in Friday’s violence.

Since March, there have been near-weekly, violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, leading to escalations involving rockets fire on Israel and reprisal air strikes.

The deadly border clashes have seen Israeli security forces facing gunfire, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and efforts — sometimes successful — to damage or penetrate the border fence. Last month, an Israeli soldier was killed by a sniper. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 150 Palestinian haves been killed in the violence. Hamas has admitted that many of the fatalities were its members or those belonging to other Gaza terror groups.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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