Israel bombed Gaza on Wednesday after militants fired rockets through the night, overshadowing the signing of landmark normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the militants of seeking to stop the peace deals, Israel’s first with an Arab country since 1994.
But Gaza ruler Hamas warned Israel it faced an escalation if the bombing continued, barely two weeks after a renewed Egyptian-brokered truce halted near-nightly exchanges across the border through August.
The signing of the two agreements at a White House ceremony hosted by President Donald Trump prompted protest rallies across the Palestinian territories.
The deals broke with decades of Arab consensus that there would be no normalisation of relations with Israel until it had made peace with the Palestinians and drew accusations of “betrayal” against the Western-backed Gulf states.
At least 15 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip between 8 pm (1700 GMT) Tuesday and early Wednesday, nine of which were intercepted by Israeli air defences, the military said.
One hit the southern port city of Ashdod, wounding at least two people, emergency services said.
“We were surprised by the rockets,” said Ilanit Levy, a 45-year-old resident of Sderot, an Israeli town close to the Gaza border.
“It’s because of the agreements. Maybe they wanted to say that they don’t want peace with us, that they want to damage the agreements,” she added.
The Israeli military said fighter jets responded with strikes on Hamas military targets.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket fire.
But Israel held Hamas responsible, warning it would “bear the consequences for terror activity against Israeli civilians”.
– Cloud over Gulf deals –
The rocket fire came as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed accords establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and Netanyahu accused the militants of seeking to derail them.
“They want to prevent peace, they won’t. We will hit everyone who tries to harm us, and we will extend a hand of peace to all who reach out to us to make peace,” the prime minister said in a statement.
The landmark agreements prompted demonstrations on Tuesday in both Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
Clutching Palestinian flags and wearing blue face masks for protection against coronavirus, demonstrators rallied in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority.
Trump said the agreements “will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region.”
“After decades of division and conflict we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” he said.
Speaking later to reporters, he said Israel would enter into similar deals with up to nine other countries, including regional power Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned that the deals would “not achieve peace in the region” until the US and Israel acknowledged his people’s right to a state.
“Peace, security and stability will not be achieved in the region until the Israeli occupation ends,” he said.
Abbas warned that “attempts to bypass the Palestinian people and its leadership, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, will have dangerous consequences”.
Israel’s arch-foe Iran said the UAE and Bahrain were reaching out to a regime that is “committing more crimes in Palestine every day”.
“Some of the region’s countries, their people are pious Muslims but their rulers understand neither religion nor (their) debt … to the nation of Palestine,” President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet on Wednesday.
In Gaza, protesters trampled on and set fire to placards bearing images of the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov arrived in Gaza on Wednesday for pre-scheduled meetings with Hamas officials.
Hamas has joined the Palestinian Authority in condemning the UAE and Bahrain accords as a “betrayal” of their cause.
The new rocket fire came after militants launched rockets and balloons fitted with incendiary devices across the border through much of August, drawing retaliatory Israeli air strikes.
Late last month, the two sides renewed an Egyptian-brokered truce under which Israel has allowed financial aid from the gas-rich state of Qatar to flow into impoverished Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade since 2007.
Israel’s army launched new airstrikes Sunday against Hamas positions in Gaza and closed the fishing zone around the Palestinian enclave in response to rockets and firebombs sent into Israeli territory.
The measures came after a week of heightened tensions, including clashes on Saturday evening along the Gaza-Israeli border, the army said.
Dozens of Palestinian “rioters burned tyres, hurled explosive devices and grenades towards the security fence and attempted to approach it,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
Long simmering Palestinian anger has flared further since Israel and the UAE on Thursday agreed to normalise relations, a move Palestinians saw as a betrayal of their cause by the Gulf country.
Over the past week, Israeli forces have carried out repeated night-time strikes on targets linked to the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
The army says they were carried out in response to makeshift firebombs attached to balloons and kites which have been sent into southern Israel, causing thousands of fires on Israeli farms and communities.
There were 19 such Palestinian attacks on Saturday alone, according to Israeli rescue services.
In response, “IDF fighter jets and aircraft struck a number of Hamas military targets in the Gaza Strip,” the army said, adding that among the targets hit were a Hamas “military compound and underground infrastructure”.
Early Sunday the IDF said two nore rockets had been fired into Israel from Gaza and intercepted by its Iron Dome defence system.
“In response, our Air Force just struck Hamas terror targets in Gaza, including a military compound used to store rocket ammunition,” it said.
– Total fishing ban –
Following rocket and incendiary balloon attacks earlier this week, Israel on Wednesday slashed Gaza’s permitted coastal fishing zone from 15 nautical miles to eight, a punitive move often used by the Jewish state in response to Gaza unrest.
Following Saturday’s clashes and rocket-fire, Israel’s military decided “to entirely shut down the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip, immediately and until further notice, starting this morning (Sunday),” a military statement said.
Israel has also closed its Kerem Shalom goods crossing with the Gaza Strip.
Despite a truce last year backed by the UN, Egypt and Qatar, the two sides clash sporadically with rockets, mortar fire or incendiary balloons.
The Gaza Strip has a population of two million, more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
The IDF said Hamas “is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it, and will bear the consequences for terror activity against Israeli civilians”.
The only crossing between Gaza and Egypt opened on Tuesday for 72 hours, allowing people to leave the Palestinian enclave for the first time since the novel coronavirus outbreak began.
The Rafah crossing in southern Gaza was closed in March, as Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the strip, sought to guard against a major virus outbreak in the densely-populated territory with weak health infrastructure.
Rafah was opened for three days in April, but only to allow Gazans stranded abroad to return home. The crossing re-opened for limited two-way movement on Tuesday.
Gaza’s interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bazam said people who hold foreign passports, foreign residency permits or emergency medical needs “will be allowed to leave”.
Hundreds of Gazans had assembled before dawn at a waiting room preparing to exit, AFP reporters said.
Gaza resident Hatem al-Mansi told AFP he needed medical care, but voiced concern about infection risks in Egypt, which has registered 95,000 COVID-19 cases, compared to just 81 in Gaza.
“There is a fear of being infected with COVID-19 in cars or buses in Egypt,” he told AFP. “In Gaza, we don’t have that problem.”
Gaza, under an Israeli-enforced blockade since 2007, was uniquely protected against the coronavirus since access was already tightly controlled before the outbreak.
But the dire economic conditions and a poor healthcare system, partly caused by the blockade, also made Gaza especially vulnerable to the virus.
Hamas has maintained tight restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Anyone returning from Egypt will be placed in a dedicated quarantine facility for three weeks, said the head of infection control at Gaza’s health ministry, Rami Al-Abadala.
“Every returnee will be given a mask and will be tested upon entry,” he said.
A large contingent of police, doctors and nurses were stationed at Rafah early Tuesday to accommodate the returnees.
Israel argues the measures are necessary to isolate Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by most Western countries.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.
Movement in and out of the territory — which was severely restricted by Israel and Egypt before the pandemic — has tightened in response to the coronavirus threat.
Authorities in Gaza have said that more than 2,700 Palestinians are in home-isolation, mostly people who had returned from Egypt.
A civilian group called the Al-Shajaiyah initiative hit the streets of Gaza City on Sunday after the cases were confirmed, working to clean the street with sanitising spray.
“We in the Gaza Strip have been under siege for 14 years and the possibilities (to protect ourselves) are very limited,” said Ahmad Al Wadya, a doctor helping to coordinate the effort.
– ‘Disaster of gigantic proportions’ –
The head of the WHO’s Palestinian office, Gerald Rockenschaub, told AFP this week that Israeli restrictions and political tensions have caused Gaza’s health facilities to deteriorate over the past decade.
Gaza has only 60 intensive care unit (ICU) beds for its two million people and not all are operational due to staff shortages, he said.
In response to the pandemic but before the Gaza cases were confirmed, Israel had announced an increased supply of medical equipment to Gaza, according to the branch of the Israeli military responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian Territories, COGAT.
Supplies already delivered included 600 testing kits and 1,000 protective suits, COGAT said last week.
Hamas authorities are also working to build up to 1,000 new isolation rooms near the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
Matthias Schmale, the Gaza director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, told AFP this week that it would be “an illusion to think you can manage (an epidemic) in a closed-off space like this”.
“Everything I am hearing is if the outbreak reaches the magnitude where you need more than 60 ICU beds to treat, it will become increasingly difficult and could well turn into a disaster of gigantic proportions,” he said.
Palestinians suffering from cancer and other serious diseases are currently allowed to leave Gaza through Israel for treatment inside the Jewish state or in the occupied West Bank.
It is not yet clear if Israel, which has imposed tight restrictions on its own population in response to the pandemic, will allow seriously ill coronavirus patients to be transferred from the Strip.
The Israeli army said Tuesday that a strike in Gaza that killed nine members of the same family had been due to a faulty assessment of the risk to civilians.
The November 14 airstrike targeted the home of Rasmi Abu Malhous, described by Israel as a commander in Islamic Jihad, the militant Palestinian movement against which Israel had launched a three-day campaign.
He and eight members of his family were killed by the attack, including five children.
A statement from the army said that intelligence collected ahead of the attack had indicated that the residence “was designated as an Islamic Jihad terror organisation military compound”.
The army had “estimated” that “civilians would not be harmed as a result of an attack” on the site, which was not believed to be accessible to members of the public.
An army inquiry later found “that even though military activity was conducted in the compound, it was not a closed compound, and in reality, civilians were present there,” it said.
The army said it would learn from its “mistakes” to reduce “the recurrence of similar irregular events.”
It stressed it had made “considerable efforts… to reduce the damage to non-combatants”.
The military report also blamed Islamic Jihad for exploiting and endangering non-combatants “by placing its military assets in the heart of the civilian population and by deliberately acting from within densely populated civilian areas.”
The three-day flareup began when Israel killed a senior Islamic Jihad official in Gaza on November 12.
The Islamist group, which is closely allied with Gaza’s rulers Hamas, responded by firing more than 450 rockets at Israel.
During the confrontation, Israeli forces attacked dozens of targets in the enclave.
Palestinian officials said 35 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded. There were no Israeli fatalities.
In its Tuesday report, the Israeli army said its November operation had been a success, dealing a blow to Islamic Jihad and serving to increase the security of Israeli civilians and help prevent “a wider military campaign.”
An Israeli military court has sentenced a soldier to one month in jail over the killing of a Palestinian teenager after he opened fire without authorisation, the army said Wednesday.
The unnamed soldier was convicted Monday for “acting without authorisation in a manner endangering to life and well-being”, it said in a statement.
Othman Rami Halles, 15, was shot dead during protests on the Israel-Gaza border on July 13, 2018, the Palestinian health ministry said at the time.
The army said a probe had found that “the soldier fired at a Palestinian rioter who was climbing on the security fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip”.
The soldier, identified in Israeli media as a sniper, had opened fire “not in accordance with the rules of engagement and not in accordance with the instructions he had received”, it said.
After a plea bargain, the court sentenced the soldier to 30 days in prison with military labour and a suspended term of another 60 days, and he was demoted.
The investigation had found no evidence of a “causal link between the soldier’s fire” and the teenager’s death, the army said.
At least 311 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since protests were launched along the border of the Israeli-blockaded enclave in March 2018, the majority during the demonstrations and clashes.
Eight Israelis have been killed in Gaza-related violence over the same period.
Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip, the Palestinian health ministry said Sunday, hours after three rockets were fired at Israel from the blockaded enclave.
The ministry said another Palestinian was hospitalised in the shooting that came after the Israeli army said an attack helicopter and tank had fired at “armed suspects” along the barrier that separates Israel from Gaza.
“We just identified a number of armed suspects from Gaza approaching the security fence with Israel. We fired towards them,” the army said a statement posted on its Twitter account.
The latest violence came after Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fired three rockets at southern Israel late Saturday, the Israeli army said, in the second such attack in 24 hours.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The army said two of the projectiles had been intercepted by its Iron Dome aerial defence system but it did not specify what happened to the third rocket.
Air raid sirens had sounded in the southern town of Sderot and its surroundings.
On Friday Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket at Sderot, in what the army said was the first such attack since July 12.
In response, Israeli warplanes struck at least three targets in the Gaza Strip early on Saturday but caused no casualties, a Palestinian security source said.
The strikes hit a Hamas observation post in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, an unidentified target near Gaza City and open ground near Deir El Balah in the central part of the territory, the source said.
An Israeli army statement mentioned only two strikes, against “underground targets belonging to the Hamas terror organisation in the northern and central Gaza Strip”.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, ruled by Islamist movement Hamas, have fought three wars since 2008.
And since March 2018, regular protests and clashes have erupted along the border of the blockaded coastal enclave.
At least 305 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since then, the majority during demonstrations and clashes.
Seven Israelis have also been killed in Gaza-related violence over the same period.
Palestinian leaders in Gaza announced a ceasefire with Israel on Monday to end a deadly two-day escalation in violence that threatened to widen into a fourth war between them since 2008.
An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the deal, but there appeared to have been no rocket fire or Israeli strikes in the hours after it was due to take effect, an AFP correspondent in Gaza said.
Israel also lifted restrictions on civilian movements in communities around the Gaza border on Monday morning.
Egypt brokered the agreement to cease hostilities from 4:30 am (0130 GMT), an official from the strip’s Islamist rulers Hamas and another from its allied group Islamic Jihad said on condition of anonymity.
An Egyptian official also confirmed the deal on condition of anonymity.
It came after the most serious flare-up in violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war.
The escalation began Saturday with massive rocket fire from Gaza, drawing waves of Israeli retaliatory strikes, and continued throughout Sunday.
At least 25 Palestinians, including at least nine militants, were killed.
Four Israelis civilians were also killed.
The flare-up came as Hamas sought further steps from Israel toward easing its blockade under a previous ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations.
Israel at the same time faced pressure to restore calm and put an end to the rockets hitting communities in the country’s south.
It commemorates the country’s Memorial and Independence Days later this week and is due to host the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv from May 14-18, which is expected to draw thousands to Israel.
On the Gazan side, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Monday.
Palestinian officials in Gaza accused Israel of not taking steps to ease its blockade as promised under previous ceasefire deals.
The Islamic Jihad official said the new truce agreement was again based on Israel easing its blockade.
Among the steps, he said, were the relaxing of limits on fishing and improvements in Gaza’s electricity and fuel situation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not address the ceasefire in a Monday statement, but said: “We’ve forcefully struck Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”
“The battle is not over and demands patience and discretion,” he said.
Israeli opposition politicians — and at least one from Netanyahu’s own party — criticised the agreement.
Former military chief Benny Gantz, who challenged Netanyahu in Israel’s April 9 general elections, called it “capitulation to blackmail”.
Brink Of War
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008 and the escalation brought them to the brink of another.
The Palestinian dead included a commander for Hamas’s armed wing who Israel said it targeted due to his role in transferring money from Iran to militant groups in Gaza.
It was a rare admission of a targeted killing by Israel’s army.
Israel said its strikes were in response to Hamas and Islamic Jihad firing some 690 rockets or mortars since Saturday, with air defences intercepting more than 240 of them.
In addition to those killed and injured, the rockets repeatedly set off air raid alarms in southern Israel and sent residents running to shelters while also damaging houses.
The army said its tanks and planes hit some 350 militant targets in Gaza in response.
Several buildings in Gaza City were destroyed, including one Israel said included Hamas military intelligence and security offices.
Turkey said its state news agency Anadolu had an office in the building and strongly denounced the strike.
Gaza’s health ministry said the dead from the Israeli strikes included a 14-month-old baby and a pregnant woman, 37. It first identified the woman as the baby’s mother, but the family later clarified she was the aunt.
Israel strongly disputed the claim, with army spokesman Jonathan Conricus saying that based on intelligence the deaths of the woman and baby were not due to an Israeli strike.
“Their unfortunate death was not a result of (Israeli) weaponry but a Hamas rocket that was fired and exploded not where it was supposed to,” he said.
The Gazan ministry reported late Sunday that another four-month-old baby was among those killed in Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel’s army had no comment.
On Sunday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad said their armed wings had targeted an Israeli army vehicle with a Kornet anti-tank missile.
Conricus said a Kornet missile had hit a vehicle and killed an Israeli civilian.
Calls for Calm
Egyptian and UN officials held talks throughout to reach a truce, as they have done repeatedly in the past, and there were international calls for calm.
US President Donald Trump meanwhile assured Israel on Sunday that it had Washington’s full support against “these terrorist acts”.
The escalation followed a gradual uptick in violence that threatened a previous ceasefire, including Friday clashes along the Gaza border that were the most violent in weeks.
A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt and the United Nations, had led to relative calm around Israel’s election last month.
That truce saw Israel allow Qatar to provide millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, paying salaries and financing fuel purchases to ease severe electricity shortages.
An Israeli strike killed two Palestinian militants in the central Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run health ministry and Islamic Jihad said, raising to seven the number of Palestinians killed in the enclave on Sunday.
A ministry spokesman told AFP Mohammed abu Armanah, 30, and Mahmoud abu Armanah, 27, were killed in an Israeli strike in central Gaza, without giving further details.
Islamic Jihad confirmed the men were members of its armed wing.
Three people were killed in Israel on Sunday as Hamas and other groups fired barrages of rockets from the strip in a major escalation, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes.