In response to heavy rioting and attacks at the border fence, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ordered a halt to the transfer of fuel into the Gaza Strip on Friday, only days after Israel began allowing fuel to be pumped into the Strip to allow increased power for residents.
“Israel will not tolerate a situation in which fuel is allowed into Gaza while terror and violence is used against IDF soldiers and citizens,” a statement from his office said.
Seven Palestinians were reportedly killed in intense clashes with Israeli security forces along the Gaza border Friday afternoon, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Gaza media outlets said at least 50 protesters were injured by Israeli fire.
The army said assailants planted a bomb near the fence in the south of the Strip, blowing a hole in it. Some 20 Gazans then came through the fence, and headed toward an IDF snipers’ post. Most turned back, but three who kept going were shot and killed.
Meanwhile, ten fires broke out in southern Israel that were sparked by incendiary balloons launched over the border from Gaza as part of the ongoing protests. Heavy smoke from burning tires at the Kerem Shalom crossing in the northern Strip prompted authorities in Israel to order residents of the adjacent kibbutz to stay indoors as firefighters set up large fans to clear the smoke.
Channel 10 news military analyst Alon Ben-David said Israel had seen Friday as a test for Hamas, which had been expected to temper border protests in response to Israel allowing the transfer of fuel into the Strip. Hamas had failed this test, he said.
In recent days Qatari-bought fuel had begun entering the Strip to allow operation of its only power station, in a bid to alleviate conditions in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
Israel has facilitated the delivery over the objections of the Palestinian Authority, hoping it will help ease months of protests and clashes.
A Qatari official told the Reuters news agency that the $60 million fuel donation came “at the request of donor states in the United Nations, to prevent an escalation of the existing humanitarian disaster.”
For months residents of the strip have been receiving only four hours of electricity a day on average. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator, told the Reuters news agency the delivery will add a few more hours of electricity to Gaza’s 2 million residents.
But it was met with criticism by officials close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose rival administration was not involved.
Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in a 2007 near civil war and multiple reconciliation attempts aimed at restoring the PA to power in Gaza have failed.
Abbas says that making deals with Hamas amounts to recognizing their control over Gaza in place of the PA and has sought to block the fuel deliveries
In a statement Tuesday Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior official close to Abbas, threatened retaliatory measures if the fuel deliveries continued.
Abbas has reportedly threatened to cut off funds to Gaza in response to the fuel transfers.
“When Qatar pays for the fuel, Hamas in Gaza will collect the bills and put it in its pocket, and this is an indirect financial aid to Hamas,” a PA official said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Israel fears further deterioration in Gaza could lead to another round of war on the southern border.
The halt of some $96 million that the PA sends monthly to the Gaza Strip could drive a desperate and cash-strapped Hamas toward conflict with Israel as a means of propping up its rule, and in the hope that bloodshed could generate sympathy for Gaza and reverse or replace the cut in aid from the US and Ramallah for Gazan welfare and development, Israeli officials believe.
Israel also worries that a spike in violence in the south could easily spread to the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Abbas was exacerbating Gaza woes and thereby fueling its residents’ aggression toward Israel.
“Abbas is strangling them economically and they lash out at Israel,” he told a press conference in his Jerusalem office.
Netanyahu did not specifically refer to the oil shipment but spoke of “attempts to reach a practical solution so that he will stop this strangulation.”
He said that if Gaza tensions reached a boiling point and brought an uptick in attacks on neighboring southern Israel “the price they will pay will be very great.”
“I’m not looking to launch unnecessary wars,” he said. “But if there’s no alternative you wage war with all your strength.”
Both Israel and Egypt enforce a number of restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from arming or building military infrastructure.
But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened steadily, and Hamas’s reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority have broken down.
Agencies contributed to this report.