UN Mideast envoy meets Hamas leaders in Gaza amid border violence
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UN Mideast envoy meets Hamas leaders in Gaza amid border violence

IDF increases Iron Dome deployment in south, where tensions high ahead of planned weekly protests after escalation in rocket attacks, arson balloons and Israeli retaliatory strikes

Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Israeli soldiers stand guard along the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Strip during Nakba Day protests on May 15, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Tensions were high along the Gaza Strip border Friday afternoon, ahead of expected weekly protests and following a night of cross-border violence and amid mounting concerns of another flareup.

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov met with Hamas leadership in Gaza on Friday in a bid to prevent an escalation of violence.

Border protests were not held last week due to the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, but were expected to resume Friday, though the level of violence during these demonstrations would largely be a decision of the Gaza-ruling Hamas.

Since the last eruption of violence in early May Hamas has largely acted to contain violence at the rallies, but it was not clear whether the terror group intended to continue this policy.

Israeli Air Force jets carried out multiple airstrikes in the Strip early Friday, hours after a rocket hit a religious school in southern Israel. The Israeli military said in a statement that fighter jets and other aircraft attacked “several terror targets, including terror infrastructure in military compounds.”

The strikes came hours after a rocket launched from Gaza slammed into a building housing a religious school, causing damage but no injuries. The rocket, which did not explode, struck the outer face of the yeshiva, sending debris onto the sidewalk. A number of tempered-glass windows were also broken. Most students had gone home for the weekend, but several people were still inside the school at the time.

In light of the increased tensions, the Israel Defense Forces on Friday increased the deployment of its Iron Dome missile defense batteries in southern Israel.

On early Thursday morning, a rocket launched from Gaza at the southern community of Nirim was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

The rocket attacks led to growing calls among politicians for a major military operation, including assassinating leaders of Hamas.

No Palestinian group has taken responsibility for the attacks, but the military generally holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the enclave.

Tensions with Gaza have been steadily rising in recent days, with Israel blocking Gazan fishermen from access to the sea in response to multiple incendiary balloons being launched over the border.

Hamas has complained that Israel is not fully implementing an unofficial ceasefire deal between the sides, while Jerusalem has accused Palestinian terror groups of breaching the understandings.

A man stands outside a Jewish religious school in Sderot, Israel, after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

The tensions have threatened to undo an unofficial ceasefire brokered after a major flareup in early May in which both sides exchanged the most intense fire in years, leading to the deaths of four Israelis and 29 Gazans.

According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, last month’s agreement includes a Hamas obligation to halt violent incidents along the border fence, maintaining a buffer zone 300 meters from the border; an end to the launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli communities and nighttime clashes between Gazans and security forces; and an end to flotillas trying to break through the maritime border between Gaza and Israel.

In return, Israel expanded the fishing zone and agreed to enable United Nations cash-for-work programs, allow medicine and other civil aid to enter the Strip, and open negotiations on matters relating to electricity, crossings, healthcare and funds.

“The situation will gradually escalate” if the deal is violated, an unnamed Hamas official was quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster Thursday. “If the agreement is implemented, the situation will calm down.”

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov at a press conference in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)

“We are not trying to undermine what we have achieved, but groups in Gaza aren’t feeling like Israel has been honoring the agreement,” the official added.

“It is only delaying and delaying and doesn’t want to carry out the understandings regarding getting the [Qatari] money into Gaza, expanding the fishing zone and allowing dual-purpose materials into the Strip.”

Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper linked to Hezbollah, reported Friday that mediators from the UN, Egypt and Qatar have conveyed assurances to Gaza factions that Israel intends to implement the ceasefire’s understandings. It did not provide sourcing and its claims couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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