Gaza’s health ministry said Wednesday that more than a thousand cases of coronavirus were recorded over the previous day, the highest daily infection toll in several months.
The spike in the coastal Palestinian enclave, controlled by Hamas Islamists since 2007, stands in contrast to the slowdown in infections in Israel, which maintains a tight blockade on Gaza.
“The epidemiological situation in the Gaza Strip is dangerous,” said Magdy Dahir, deputy director of primary care at the Gaza health ministry. “There is a clear increase in hospitalisations.”
In Gaza, 65,500 people have been infected with Covid-19 and 610 deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic.
The Hamas-run government, which imposed a 9:00 pm (1800 GMT) curfew on Saturday to curb transmission, has ordered new restrictions on gatherings beginning Wednesday, the Gaza Hotels and Restaurants Association said.
But in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian Authority health minister Mai Al-Kaila told the official Voice of Palestine radio that the rate of increase was slowing, after a wave of infections packed local hospitals.
In the West Bank, more than 175,000 people have been infected and 2,004 deaths have been recorded.
The Palestinian health ministry announced that, as of Monday morning, more than 69,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had received one vaccine jab.
By contrast, more than half of Israel’s roughly 9.3 million residents have been inoculated with two Pfizer-BioNTech shots.
The latest daily increase in Israel was 442 cases, down from thousands of daily cases earlier in March.
Rights groups have called on Israel to supply vaccines to Palestinians.
Israel has given limited doses to some Palestinians, but it says the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the general vaccination campaign.
On Tuesday, the Israeli health ministry said it detected a new Israeli variant of the coronavirus. It said the strain was rare, and not more contagious or deadly than other variants.
That delivery was organised by Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior Palestinian Authority figure who broke with president Mahmud Abbas and now lives in exile in Abu Dhabi.
The delivery orchestrated by Dahlan, currently a security adviser to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, was seen as a political move ahead of Palestinian legislative polls in May and presidential elections in July.
Analysts say Dahlan might seek to work against the pro-Abbas camp in the vote, the first Palestinian polls since 2006.
The PA, led by Abbas’s Fatah movement, earlier this month delivered 2,000 doses Sputnik V doses to Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing that connects Israel to the strip.
Israel had earlier blocked a PA vaccine shipment from entering Gaza.
Israel’s military branch responsible for civil affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories said a “political” decision was required before a vaccine delivery could be allowed into the enclave where Israel has fought three wars against Hamas since 2008.
Israel’s obstruction was condemned as an international crime by the PA and Hamas, while the UN has called on the Jewish state, currently the world leader in vaccinations per capita, to ensure Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are inoculated.
The International Criminal Court’s ruling that it has jurisdiction over the situation in the Palestinian territories opens the way to it investigating alleged war crimes committed in the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza.
The 50-day war, which devastated the coastal enclave and left 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side, mostly civilians, and 74 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers, has already been the subject of a five-year preliminary ICC probe and a string of critical reports.
Here is a look at previous reports and probes into the war between the Jewish state and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza:
ICC preliminary probe
In January 2015, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda launched a preliminary examination into whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant opening war crimes investigations into the conflict. The examination involved both Israeli and Palestinian actions.
That long-running probe looked at the 2014 war and later at violence near the Israel-Gaza border in 2018.
In December 2019, the prosecutor said she wanted to open a full investigation, having been “satisfied that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip”, without specifying the perpetrators of the alleged crimes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that position made the Hague-based court, which Israel has refused to sign up to since its creation in 2002, a “political tool” against the Jewish state.
Bensouda said she would first ask the ICC to make a jurisdictional ruling on the matter, due to “unique and highly contested legal and factual issues attaching to this situation”.
On Friday, the ICC ruled it had jurisdiction over the situation in “territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank”.
Netanyahu again slammed the court, calling the ruling “anti-Semitic”, while the Palestinians — who became a state party to the court in 2015 — hailed it as “victory for justice”.
On June 23, 2015, a report by a UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict says it received “credible allegations” that both Israeli and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the war.
The report followed a UN Security Council document published on April 27, 2015, that blamed the Israeli military for seven strikes on UN schools in Gaza that were used as shelters. Forty-four people were killed.
The independent experts who compiled the report also found that UN schools, while vacant at the time, were in three cases used to hide Palestinian weapons. In two of the cases, militants probably fired on Israeli soldiers from the establishments, the report found.
International human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also accused both sides of war crimes.
In late 2014, London-based Amnesty said it documented eight instances in which Israeli forces attacked homes in Gaza “without warning”, killing at least 104 civilians, and alleged that the destruction of four multi-storey buildings late in the war breached international humanitarian law.
It also said “Palestinian armed groups also committed war crimes” in indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets into Israel, actions which left six civilians dead.
In May 2015, it accused Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, of war crimes against fellow Palestinians to “settle scores” during the war, notably the execution of at least 23 people.
US-based Human Rights Watch said in September 2014 that in three cases it examined, Israel caused “numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war”.
The incidents were the separate shellings of two UN schools in northern Gaza on July 24 and 30, and a guided missile strike on another UN school in the southern city of Rafah on August 3.
The attacks killed a total of 45 people including 17 children, HRW said.
Israeli reports and investigations
Israel in June 2015 defended its conduct in the Gaza war as both “lawful” and “legitimate” in a detailed inter-ministerial report.
The authors acknowledged that “numerous civilians were caught in the hostilities”, but they added Israel “did not intentionally target civilians or civilian objects”.
Israeli military authorities carried out their own investigations into the conduct of their troops during the war and in April 2015 announced three soldiers had been charged with looting.
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.