With war looming, Israel girds for more violence in Gaza

Palestinian protesters expected to converge on border fence Friday, in key test of whether the sides can retreat from brink

Teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops fall over Palestinians during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, July 13, 2018 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops fall over Palestinians during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, July 13, 2018 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Israeli authorities were hoping to avoid a repeat of heavy cross-border violence on Friday and Saturday, a week after Gazan protests snowballed into some of the heaviest fighting on the volatile frontier in years.

Palestinians were expected to converge on the border fence to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade on the Strip Friday, in what is seen as a key test of whether the sides can retreat from a seemingly inevitable march toward war.

There are signs already that a hoped-for calm may fail to materialize.

On Thursday, Israel for the first time killed a Hamas member taking part in launching incendiary balloons over the border. The airstrike marked a serious escalation in Israel’s efforts to stop the flying objects, which have wreaked havoc in Israeli communities near the border and upped political pressure for the military to take a harder stance against perpetrators.

Relatives mourn over the body of Abdel Karim Radwan, a Hamas military winge member who was killed in an Israeli air strike on a group launching fire balloons on July 19, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Until Thursday, the IDF had only fired warning shots near those seen preparing the devices — which also include booby-trapped balloons with explosives, according to Israel — staunchly resisting calls from politicians to use lethal force against Gazans launching them.

Gazans responded by firing two mortar shells at Israel, and Hamas’s armed wing vowed revenge.

Earlier in the week, Palestinian reports indicated that Hamas had agreed to halt the kite and balloon launches gradually after coming under Egyptian pressure.

Israeli authorities have maintained they are prepared to invade Gaza and go to war over the issue. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was already in a “military campaign,” as troops nearby drilled for an invasion of Gaza City. The army said the exercise had been planned in advance and was unconnected to recent events.

On Saturday, Gazan terrorists fired some 200 projectiles at Israel as the IDF carried out widespread airstrikes on targets in the Strip, in one of the heaviest days of fighting since the 2014 Gaza war.

Four Israelis were injured from rocket fire and two Palestinians were killed in an airstrike.

The violence was sparked when a soldier was injured Friday by a grenade during border protests against the blockade, and Israel carried out an airstrike in response. Israel maintains that the blockade, imposed in cooperation with Egypt, is needed in order to keep Hamas and other terror groups from getting arms or building up their military infrastructure.

‘Hamas must change’

The border tensions have threatened to derail the release of a long-awaited US peace plan, which reportedly include mechanisms for dealing with Gaza and the west Bank separately.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from right) meets at his Jerusalem office with the ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (right); White House adviser Jared Kushner (center); US Ambassador David Friedman (second left); and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, on June 22, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post late Thursday, US negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, along with US Ambassador David Friedman, indicated that the US and other countries were prepared to offer humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Strip, but were stymied by Hamas’s commitment to fighting Israel.

“International donors are conflicted: Should they try to help the people directly, at the certain risk of enriching terrorists, or withhold funding to Hamas and watch the people it is supposed to govern suffer?” Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman wrote.

In what may be seen as a shift, the three said they would be willing to work with a reformed Hamas, seemingly retreating from the stance that the terror group allow the Palestinians Authority to retake power in the Strip.

“There are engaged, interested parties with resources who are ready to get to work. Yet without real change accompanied by reliable security, progress is impossible,” they wrote. “If Hamas demonstrates clear, peaceful intentions — not just by word but, more importantly, by deed — then all manner of new opportunities becomes possible.”

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