Medic killed in fresh Gaza border protests but Israel-Hamas truce holds

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot next to burning tires during a demonstration at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on Friday. — AFP

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — A Palestinian medic was killed by Israeli fire during protests along the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, but the calm reached after a deadly flare-up between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military mainly held.

At least 40 Palestinians were shot by Israeli fire in the protests, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said, with volunteer medic Abdullah Al-Qatati killed after being hit in the chest east of Rafah in southern Gaza.

A few thousand protesters had gathered in different locations along the Israel border, setting tires ablaze and throwing stones, but there were fewer people demonstrating that in previous weeks, correspondents said.

The protests came after a deal to end all rocket fire into Israel and air strikes on the Gaza Strip appeared to go into effect around midnight (2100 GMT) on Thursday.

There was no official confirmation from Israel or Gaza’s rulers Hamas but there were no fresh strikes on Friday.

Despite the relative calm the European Union warned that Israel and Hamas were “dangerously close” to a new war.

Thursday had seen extensive Israeli raids in retaliation for the launching of more than 180 rockets and mortar rounds by Hamas and its allies on Wednesday night.

Three Palestinians were killed in the Israeli strikes, including a mother and her 18-month-old daughter, while seven Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rocket fire as hundreds took refuge in bomb shelters.

It was one of the most serious flare-ups since the 2014 Gaza war and followed months of escalating tensions.

Late on Thursday, an Israeli air raid flattened a five-story building which hosted a cultural center in Gaza City but which the army said was used by Hamas security forces.

The Israeli security cabinet and the Hamas leadership met separately on Thursday, with the truce offer brokered by Egypt and the United Nations on the table.

Neither Israel nor Hamas officially confirmed any truce had gone into effect, although that has also been the case with previous informal arrangements.

It would be the third such truce in a month.

Reserve General Doron Almog, former head of Israel’s southern command which deals with Gaza, told army radio on Friday morning that the next 24 hours would be crucial.

“We are closer to an arrangement than we have been in the past because Hamas’s interest in a deal is greater than its wish for escalation,” he said.

The European Union expressed concern after Thursday’s flare-up.

“The rocket fire from Gaza towards communities in Southern Israel as well as other violent actions and provocations against Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militants are totally unacceptable,” an EU foreign affairs spokesperson added in a statement.

Gaza and Israel are “dangerously close” to a new conflict, the EU said, calling for urgent “de-escalation” to keep civilians from further risk.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.

The Israeli daily Maariv wrote that during the security cabinet meeting on Thursday Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was a lone voice in support of a new war in Gaza.

“He was the only one who demanded to launch a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu was opposed. The (Israeli army) also didn’t recommend it,” he said.

Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the “increasingly frequent cycles of escalation and de-escalation” were similar to events before the previous wars.

“Unlike the run-up to past wars, there is already a sustained diplomatic push to hammer out a ceasefire,” he said, pointing to Egyptian and UN efforts and adding that neither Israel nor Hamas seem to desire a full-blown a conflict.

“Yet their ability to avoid renewed war is becoming increasingly constrained with each cycle of violence.”

Palestinians have been protesting along the Gaza-Israel border on Fridays since late March.

They are calling for an end to the decade-long Israeli blockade of Gaza and the return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes inside Israel, which they fled or were expelled from during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to isolate Hamas although critics say it amounts to collective punishment of two million people.

It says any significant return of refugees would mean the end of it as a Jewish state.

At least 166 Palestinians have been killed since protests began on March 30.

Most were killed by Israeli fire during the protests but others died in air strikes.

One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. — AFP