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Tensions rise on Israel-Gaza border

What happened: Israeli forces attacked Hamas military targets in Gaza yesterday after balloons with bombs were launched from Gaza into Israel.

  • Balloons with explosives attached were launched from Gaza into southern Israel and in one incident, a bomb attached to balloons exploded in uninhabited territory in Sdot Negev yesterday. No one was injured.
  • In response, an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) helicopter gunship attacked Hamas underground military infrastructure in the northern Gaza Strip.
  • On Wednesday afternoon four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel, with two intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system. It was the first rocket attack in three weeks. In response, IDF aircraft bombed Hamas military targets, including a weapons manufacturing facility. No injuries or casualties were reported.

Context: The rocket attack on Wednesday was blamed on an independent faction of Palestinian Islamic Jihad seeking revenge for Israel’s killing of their commander, Bahaa Abu el-Atta in November 2019.

  • 460 rockets were fired into Israel by Palestinian Islamic Jihad on 12-14 November after Atta was killed. 34 Palestinians were killed in subsequent Israel airstrikes and 100 wounded, although Israeli sources said 25 of the fatalities were Palestinian Jihad fighters. 49 Israelis were injured as a result of the rocket attacks.
  • Israel security officials are concerned that Hamas allowed this week’s attacks to take place in order to exert pressure on Israel and Egypt to resume ceasefire talks.
  • Egypt has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas for more than a year in an effort to reach a long term ceasefire. The understandings have focused on Israel lifting restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza, in exchange for Hamas ending rocket attacks and violent protests on the border.
  • Israel has made a number of concessions to Hamas by increasing the number of permits for businesspeople to travel out of Gaza, approving an electricity transmission line into Gaza and supporting major international infrastructure projects to treat sewage and build new hospitals and power plants.
  • In June 2019, Israeli media reported that Israel would fund a new $4m sewage pipeline to take waste out of Gaza for treatment in Israel.
  • A new plan could soon be agreed to build a $60m pipeline by 2022 to transfer up to one billion cubic meters of gas from Israel’s Negev to the Gaza Strip every year. The EU is reported to have provided funds for the planning phase of the project.
  • In December 2019 the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney visited Gaza and announced funding for the construction of a 7.5MW solar power plant providing clean energy to the NGEST waste water treatment plant in Northern Gaza.
  • Ceasefire talks between Hamas and Israel have recently stalled largely due to tensions between Hamas and Egypt. Egypt cancelled a planned visit by its negotiating team to Gaza after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh travelled to Tehran to attend the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, though he had assured Egyptian intelligence officials he would not do so.
  • The Egyptian government had committed to increase trade from Gaza through the Rafah Crossing if calm on the border is maintained. However Ynet has reported that following Haniyeh’s visit to Iran, Egypt has raised prices and increased taxes on their exports, including cooking gas, causing shortages in Gaza. The Egyptian military owns part of the largest company that transports products to Gaza through the Rafah Crossing and Cairo uses this to exert pressure on Hamas.

Looking ahead: Israeli officials believe that despite the attempts to reach a truce arrangement in Gaza, attacks are likely to continue in the form of rocket fire, even if this is not carried out by Hamas or Islamic Jihad but by smaller Salafi Jihadist groups. Palestinian groups could also seek to increase tensions ahead of the Israeli election on 2 March.

  • Israeli officials are also concerned that there will also be a resumption of violent protests along the Israeli-Gaza border.
  • The assessment in Israel is that there is no real change in Hamas’s position and that it’s top priority is to improve the economic situation in the Gaza Strip and make every effort to achieve a ceasefire deal with Israel.