Cease-fire at risk as hostilities rise along Israeli border of Gaza Strip

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010; A05

JERUSALEM -- Tensions along the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip have escalated in the past week, threatening a cease-fire with the ruling Hamas movement that has held since Israeli forces waged war in Gaza last year to try to end rocket attacks.

The Israeli air force early Friday struck at what the military said were a weapons manufacturing site and two arms storage facilities in retaliation for recent Palestinian rocket fire. Last month, nearly 20 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing one person. And last week, two Israeli soldiers were killed in a skirmish along the border with Palestinians who were planting explosives.

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, on Friday asked the international community to intervene to prevent an escalation of hostilities. He urged Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip to "coordinate their activities," suggesting that different factions should not unilaterally provoke Israel with rocket attacks.

"If rockets are a response to Israeli aggression, then they are a legal right. But in some cases, if we know we are going to pay a high price for it, for sure this tool should be reconsidered," Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman, said in an interview in his office in Gaza on Wednesday.

Since 2007, Hamas, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, has ruled the Gaza Strip while a separate security service and leadership, led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, governs the West Bank.

Egyptian-led efforts to create a national unity government between the Islamist Hamas group and the secular Fatah party have floundered in recent months, weakening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's ability to negotiate peace as the Obama administration seeks to resume talks to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hamas officials have expressed impatience with the inability to reach an accord with Fatah. "We wish to have reconciliation now, not tomorrow," Hamas economics minister Ziyad al-Zaza said in an interview.

Hamas leaders accused Egypt of failing to represent their point of view in a draft agreement that was meant to bring Hamas and Fatah together after the three-year split. Disputes over whether to abandon violent resistance to Israeli occupation and how to share power continue to divide the factions. A member of Fatah's Central Committee, Sakhr Bsaiso, secretly visited Gaza last week to try to resolve sticking points. Still, politicians and analysts in Gaza and Ramallah, the seat of Fatah's power in the West Bank, predicted no quick end to the division.

The United States has said its support of any unity government will depend on whether Hamas accepts Israel's existence, agrees to abandon violence and honors previous accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

During the political deadlock, Hamas officials expressed concern about Egypt's construction of an underground steel wall along its border with Gaza that would interrupt the flow of supplies. Egypt is trying to halt the flow of weapons through tunnels under the border. But Palestinians also rely heavily on the smuggling of everyday necessities through them. "We are quite worried they will destroy the tunnels," Zaza said.

Israel is now allowing essential foods and humanitarian supplies into Gaza, and a few truckloads of Gaza-grown flowers each week have been allowed out for export.

The main power plant in Gaza still runs at a little less than half-capacity because of limited fuel supplies, leaving rolling blackouts of eight to 12 hours a day throughout the Strip.

Egyptian products are used to stock groceries where people with means shop alongside humanitarian distribution sites that distribute aid to the needy.

With the restoration of some movement of goods, the majority of Gazans still cannot leave the Strip, either through Rafah checkpoint into Egypt or Erez checkpoint into Israel, leaving the new terminal there all but empty.

Despite a ban on building materials, there is limited construction with cement blocks made locally from a combination of material brought in from Egypt and recycled gravel and other products scavengers try to collect largely from Jewish settlements that were evacuated in 2005. The hunt can be dangerous -- Israeli forces prohibit Palestinian access to these areas and in late March there were two reports of Israeli troops firing toward Palestinians collecting rubble.

Although Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005, military operations around the Gaza Strip remain routine. On Thursday, the Israeli navy fired toward Palestinian fishing boats opposite the beachfront Sudaniya neighborhood. Snipers fired toward Palestinian territory near Beit Lahiya, the northern Gaza town close to the border with Israel.

The Israeli shootings have led some who live in the luxurious seaside villas in Sudaniya in the past few months to move out. For Kamal Awaja, the shooting at Beit Lahiya has deterred him from moving back to the town where he lived before the 2009 war.

"Even if they built me a palace there, I would not go," said Awaja, 50, whose 9-year-old son was killed and whose house was destroyed during the war.

He lives in a tent with his wife and other children in a field a short drive away from Beit Lahiya. "I'm afraid to go back there."

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