Under the radar, Israel eases restrictions on Gaza

With little fanfare, Palestinian fishermen and farmers allowed closer to the border

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinians in a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, sell fish smuggled through tunnels from the border between Egypt and Rafah on April 16, 2012 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians in a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, sell fish smuggled through tunnels from the border between Egypt and Rafah on April 16, 2012 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

With negotiations on the details of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas commencing in Cairo Monday, Israel has already begun to ease restrictions of movement for fishermen and farmers in the Gaza Strip.

Under the ceasefire agreement reached November 21, Israel pledged to negotiate over stopping targeted killings and allowing Gaza residents free movement near border areas. Meanwhile, Hamas and the other factions committed to negotiating over stopping “all hostilities” from the Gaza Strip toward Israel.

Nizar Ayyash, the head of Gaza’s fisherman’s union, told The Times of Israel that since Saturday, the Israeli navy has allowed Palestinian fishermen to fish up to six nautical miles from the coast, doubling the previously allowed fishing zone.

“The Israeli army has moved the buoys to mark the new boundary,” Ayyash said, “but the fishermen are still harassed and shots are fired now and then.”

“It is not entirely clear to us what the new arrangements are,” said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli organization that deals with Palestinian freedom of movement, noting that her organization obtains all information about measures on the ground from Gaza locals, not the Israeli government. Gisha reported that Gaza Strip farmers were also allowed this week to come within 100 meters (110 yards) of the border with Israel and tend to their farms.

Before the recent escalation, the official “no-go” area on the Gaza side of the border was 300 meters, but at times stretched as far as 1,500 meters into the Strip, comprising 35 percent of Gaza’s arable land, Gisha reported.

A spokesman for the IDF declined The Times of Israel’s request to comment on any new Israeli government regulations concerning Gaza. The Israeli government was also tight-lipped about specific  arrangements.

“We have no problem with improving the living conditions for the people in Gaza, because they are not our enemy,” an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel. “Easing restrictions also helps reinforce the quiet in the south.”

For the first time, Hamas has deployed policemen to the border area this week, in an attempt to prevent Palestinian demonstrators from reaching the border fence where one demonstrator was shot dead on Friday.

In the ceasefire agreement, Israel, somewhat vaguely, committed to negotiations on “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods.” Although the matter is to be discussed further in Cairo, on Monday a group of merchants was already allowed to cross into Israel through the Erez border crossing, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported. According to “special sources” cited by Ma’an, Israel will allow 120 merchants to enter Israel from Gaza on a daily basis.

The Egyptian General Intelligence Service is brokering the talks between Israeli and Hamas delegations in Cairo.

Meanwhile, conciliatory overtures between Hamas and Fatah continued Monday. Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to congratulate him on the bid to win UN nonmember state recognition later this week. Mashaal stressed the importance of maintaining power in Palestinian hands, primarily armed resistance against Israel.

Also on Monday, Egyptian sources told Ma’an that the Rafah border crossing with Gaza would likely not be open without Palestinian Authority representation at the crossing, which would necessitate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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