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Gaza, Israel Violence Escalates as Sides Trade Attacks

Militants’ rockets, Israeli airstrikes complicate the security situation as incendiary balloons keep coming from the Strip

Israel closed Gaza’s offshore fishing zone on Sunday while keeping the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing shut, a day after militants fired three rockets into Israel, Israeli jets attacked several Hamas targets in various parts of the coastal enclave, and tensions rose to their highest level in months.

Israeli Navy vessels forced Palestinian fishing boats to return to shore.

The rocket fire came after the Israeli Air Force jets attacked Hamas targets in Gaza over three days, including in the northern city of Beit Hanoun, in response to incendiary balloons launched into Israel. Two children and two women were injured by Israeli bombardment early Saturday, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.

The Iron Dome air defense system intercepted two of the rockets, but fragment struck the yard of a home in the city of Sderot and lightly injured a 58-year-old man.

Hazem Qassem, a spokesperson for Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, told The Media Line that the main reason behind the escalation was the continuation of “the blockade imposed on the Strip for more than 14 years.”

“Israel took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic in order to backtrack on its pledges to the Palestinian factions regarding easing the siege on Gaza,” he said.

The fire balloons were a “popular reaction” to the humanitarian hardships of the people of Gaza caused by the siege, Qassem said.

“The matter of the escalation depends on the occupation; it’s the party that responds to popular actions through bombing,” he elaborated. “It can be stopped if the Israeli occupation honors its previous pledges.”

Moshe Marzouk, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told The Media Line that while Hamas and Islamic Jihad viewed the fire balloons as popular resistance, Israel considered their use as acts of terrorism.

“What’s their point in burning nature, farms and animals, especially during the summer [the dry season]? Do they think they can free Palestine using these tools,” Marzouk asked.

He said Israel would not “play games” with Hamas and would respond appropriately every time. “Do they expect us to fire balloons back at them? And who decided that the balloons are a legitimate tool?” he asked.

Marzouk clarified that Israel would not lift the restrictions on Gaza so that Hamas could continue bringing in weapon shipments from Iran. “Why should we open crossings for them when Hamas is continuing with its ‘resistance movement?’” he said. “The situation depends on the Palestinians’ actions. If they continue with what they are doing, Israel will counter-attack as it sees fit, not how Hamas and Islamic Jihad think we should.”

Marzouk said out that over the past five years, Israel had offered Gaza many economic easements, including building a port (with monitoring to prevent arms imports), and some things that were not made public, “but the Palestinians don’t want anyone to get involved when they bring in weapons or other things.”

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an office of the Israeli Defense Ministry, confirmed in a statement released on Sunday that the Kerem Shalom crossing, which was shut down on August 13, would remain closed, excepting for the entry of essential humanitarian goods.

“Minister of Defense Benny Gantz has approved the recommendation of the chief of staff, COGAT and security officials, and has ordered to entirely shut down the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip, immediately and until further notice, starting this morning [Sunday], the statement read.

“This is following the rocket fire tonight, the continued launching of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip toward the Israeli citizens, and the undermining of security stability,” it continued.

In 2019, Israel eased restrictions on the flow of materials into the coastal enclave – including tens of millions of dollars of Qatari cash – and it reportedly greenlighted additional development projects there. However, Palestinians say that Israel did not keep to all of the understandings reached under Egyptian mediation and a UN umbrella.

Adnan Abu Amer, head of the Political Science Department at Ummah Open University in Gaza, explained to The Media Line that the fire balloons act came as a reaction to Israel breaking its commitments and humanitarian understandings to revive the economy of the Strip. “Thus it was normal for the Palestinians to remind the Israelis of these agreements,” he said.

Israel was keeping Gaza in a state of uncertainty and with its people barely able to survive, “and it would be extremely hard for Palestinians to accept this situation continuing indefinitely,” Abu Amer said.

Palestinians sought to express their rejection of their situation caused by Israel through “popular tools” like fire balloons and nightly tensions, in addition to firing experimental missiles, faced by Israeli rockets and an increase in raids against the Strip.

“But let’s not forget that this escalation in Gaza came during a domestic political crisis [in Israel], as it seems that Israel is going to a fourth election [in 19 months] and the war [defense] minister’s popularity decreased, while [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is still holding on [in the polls],” Abu Amer pointed out.

Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party, saw Gaza as a tool to restore his popularity and influence in Israel, Abu Amer claimed.

The current escalation might continue for days until Egyptian or international mediators intervene “or a military confrontation takes place between Israel and the resistance. Not a massive one, but more than what’s happening now,” he said.