Minister downplays Jordan rift, says ties haven't changed

Liberman says he expects quiet weekend on Gaza border

Defense minister calls for a month of calm from Hamas before Israel revisits its policies for the beleaguered enclave

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to residents of the Gaza periphery in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on October 26, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to residents of the Gaza periphery in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on October 26, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday said he was “hopeful” that the Gaza Strip would be calm over the coming weekend, without clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops, following weeks of heightened tensions and two flareups that threatened to lead Israel and the Hamas terror group to war.

“I am hopeful and I anticipate that this Friday will pass more quietly — that’s what we need to hope for,” the defense minister said.

Liberman made his remarks in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, next to the Gaza border, where he met with the heads of local governments to discuss the current strained security situation in the Strip.

The defense minister also briefly discussed an ongoing diplomatic row between Israel and Jordan, in which Amman announced it would not renew the lease on a piece of territory along the border that was under its control, but which it allowed Israel to utilize.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to residents of the Gaza periphery in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on October 26, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Liberman downplayed the severity of the rift, saying Jordan was still abiding by its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

“We’ll talk to them. We must speak with them, we must have negotiations, but I don’t see any change in our relationship with the Jordanians at the moment,” he said.

An end to Gaza clashes?

Weekly large-scale riots and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have become a mainstay along the Strip’s security fence since March 30, as part of a Hamas-led effort known as the “March of Return.”

These demonstrations take place each Friday, regularly sending massive amounts of thick smoke into the Israeli communities nearby, as Palestinians burn tires along the border and send incendiary devices affixed to balloons into Israel to spark fires.

Damage to a Beersheba home hit by a rocket on October 17, 2018. (Flash90)

The period since March 30 has also included a number of significant flareups and extended clashes, including earlier this week, which saw a rocket attack aimed at southern Israel. Another rocket launched from the Gaza Strip last week struck a home in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, causing significant damage, but no injuries as the family inside had reached their bomb shelter in time.

In recent weeks, the situation along the border has grown more precarious, as indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas — with the Egyptian military and United Nations acting as intermediaries — have reached a critical turning point.

Israel has called for a cessation to all violence, including both the clashes on the border and the daily arson attacks that have burned large swaths of land in the south, in exchange for certain economic incentives and an easing of the blockade around the coastal enclave.

The Arabic-language, London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Friday reported that Egypt and the UN had brokered such a deal, under which Palestinians would be able to continue their weekly demonstrations at the border with Israel, but will not commit acts of violence, such as trying to breach the border, launching cross-border incendiary balloons, or throwing explosives at Israeli troops along the fence.

A Palestinian waves a flag during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 22, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

According to the report, Israel pledged in return to expand the maritime zone for permitted fishing off the Gaza coast, to allow additional fuel into the coastal enclave in order to increase the amount of electricity supplied, and to allow the UN to carry out infrastructure projects in Gaza.

Liberman appeared to confirm that parts of this report were correct, but did not comment on all aspects.

“Yesterday and today, Qatari fuel trucks entered [Gaza], but one calm Friday in one weekend is still not a change,” he said.

The defense minister called for a month of calm in Gaza before more significant changes would take place.

“In order to see a trend, we need to see what happens at least until the end of November, and then we can reach conclusions one way or another,” he said.

Liberman said the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group’s ability to control the level of violence along the fence — as seen from the relatively calm protests last week, after a ceasefire was reached after a flareup — was proof that these demonstrations were not a grassroots effort, but were a coordinated tactic.

Israeli soldiers taking position during clashes with Palestinian protesters across the Gaza border on October 19, 2018 in Nahal Oz (Jack Guez/AFP)

“There is no ‘popular protest,’ rather there is organized violence that they control,” the defense minister said.

“When they want to raise the level of violence, they raise it. When they want to lower it, they lower it. No one comes to the fence by foot, they are all brought in transportation organized by Hamas,” he said.

Some 156 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.

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