Israel carries out strikes on Gaza

GAZA CITY – Israel’s military carried out a series of strikes on the Gaza Strip on Thursday after mortar rounds from the Palestinian enclave were fired at its soldiers, in a significant flare-up of violence. Hamas authorities reported three Palestinians wounded and taken to hospital, providing no further details on their conditions. No Israelis were reported hurt.

The violence came a month after Israel blew up an Islamic Jihad tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into its territory, resulting in the deaths of at least 12 Palestinian militants.

There have been warnings that Islamic Jihad would respond to the destruction of the tunnel.

The strikes also occurred at a highly sensitive time for the Palestinians, with rival movements Hamas and Fatah seeking to follow through on a reconciliation accord aimed at ending their 10-year feud.

Israel’s army said it had hit six military targets after the mortar fire, including four near the border fence in the north of the strip and two others in the “central Gaza Strip”.

The operation involved tanks and Israeli aircraft.

AFP journalists reported seeing three strikes in the Gaza City area.

Palestinian security sources said four Islamic Jihad military bases were struck in different parts of Gaza, as well as at least one Hamas lookout point.

Israel’s military said the targets included two belonging to Hamas and two to Islamic Jihad. The other two strikes confirmed by Israel targeted “military posts belonging to terror organisations,” a statement said.

Islamic Jihad said none of its fighters were among the wounded.

Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said between 10 and 12 mortar rounds were fired at its forces and positions near the northeastern part of the Gaza Strip before it responded with strikes. There were no Israeli casualties and “only very light damage,” he told journalists. Conricus signalled that Islamic Jihad was responsible for the mortar fire, but declined to say clearly.

If confirmed, they would be the first strikes by the Hamas-allied group from Gaza since the last war in 2014, sources close to Islamic Jihad said.

Repeating Israel’s longstanding policy, Conricus said it held Hamas responsible for all such activity from the Gaza Strip.

Dawoud Shahab, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, said in a statement Thursday they had the “full right to respond to this dangerous escalation for which the (Israeli) occupation is responsible.”

Islamist movement Hamas has run the Gaza Strip for a decade.

Conricus said that Israel did not want to escalate the situation but that it considered the mortar fire a “severe event.”

“We know exactly who conducted this attack,” he said.

“We even know them by name, but we hold the Hamas terrorist organisation responsible for any act of hostility perpetrating from the Gaza Strip against Israel.”

He pointed out that the incident came exactly a month after the tunnel operation.

Tensions have risen between Israel and Islamic Jihad after the army blew up the tunnel that stretched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory on October 30.

Such tunnels have been used in the past to carry out attacks.

Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip have fought three wars since 2008. Occasional exchanges of fire continue to occur along the border.

Under a reconciliation deal signed in October, Hamas was meant to hand power back to the Palestinian Authority by December 1, thereby ending its decade-long dominance there.

But Fatah and Hamas announced late Wednesday that they were postponing the planned handover to December 10 with sharp disagreements persisting between the two sides.

Meanwhile, Palestinian rival factions have delayed the handover of power in the Gaza Strip by at least 10 days, stoking fears Thursday that a landmark deal to end their decade-long feud may be set to fail.

A series of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip in response to mortar fire at its forces meanwhile were a further sign Thursday of the difficulties facing the Palestinian reconciliation bid.

Fatah and Hamas announced the handover delay late Wednesday after sharp disagreements derailed a plan to return civil power in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority by Friday.

The handover would end Islamist movement Hamas’s 10-year dominance of the blockaded Palestinian enclave and had raised hopes that deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the territory could be addressed.

A range of complex issues remain to be resolved, including security control of the Gaza Strip and the fate of two separate civil administrations.

Previous attempts at reconciliation between Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah movement, based in the occupied West Bank, and his Islamist rivals from Hamas have previously failed.

The two factions have not publicly presented a plan for how they will resolve remaining issues before the new December 10 deadline under the Egyptian-brokered accord.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister, said he doubted a true handover could occur by the target date, though partial progress may allow the factions to keep the accord alive.

“This decision (to delay) was taken under pressure from the Egyptian delegation,” he said.

“The Egyptian delegation wants success, so they suggested 10 days and promised to continue their presence there and to put pressure on the two sides. I personally doubt that they can solve all those issues quickly.”

Wednesday’s late-night announcement followed a day of turbulence related to the reconciliation deal signed in Cairo on October 12.

Fatah’s top negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, told AFP on Wednesday that Hamas was “not committed to the agreement it signed in Cairo.”

In response, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim accused Fatah of “manoeuvres” to avoid going through with the deal.

Hamas also accuses Abbas of violating the spirit of the agreement by so far refusing to lift punitive measures, including a cut in electricity payments for Gaza.

On Thursday, Israel’s military said it struck at least six military posts in the strip, including those for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, after mortar fire from the enclave targeted its forces.

Three Palestinians were reported wounded, while no Israelis were injured.

There was no sign of a link to the reconciliation accord, but the flare-up was another illustration of the difficulties linked to Gaza, which has seen three wars with Israel since 2008.

Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing it in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007, leaving the Palestinians with two separate administrations.

A first deadline under the accord was met, with Hamas handing control of Gaza’s borders to the PA on November 1, but far more difficult issues remain.

As tensions built Wednesday, Abbas ordered an immediate stop to public statements on reconciliation “for the sake of the Palestinian national interest and our relationship with our Egyptian brothers”, official news agency WAFA said.

Palestinian political analyst Nour Odeh said Thursday this was indication that the process could still be salvaged.

“You have a process in which thousands of people are involved,” she told AFP. “I expect these delays and complications to happen. I think both sides do as well.”

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem also denied the process had failed, as did a senior Palestinian Authority official.

“Hamas will continue to the furthest point to make the reconciliation succeed. This is a strategic decision we will not retreat from,” Qassem said.

In Gaza, optimism was in short supply, however, with many residents expecting the process to collapse.

“All the people want to succeed with reconciliation,” said Abdul Latif Abu Abdo, a 45-year-old who sells vegetables in Gaza City.

“But both sides are cheating the people – Fatah doesn’t want it, Hamas doesn’t want it.”

After the 2007 power shift, the PA continued to pay around 60,000 staff in Gaza, despite the vast majority not working.

Hamas has hired around 50,000 civil servants to replace them over the past decade, and the fate of those staff is a key sticking point, with unions insisting on a settlement.

The reconciliation agreement stipulates they have until February to find a solution for the Gaza employees, which could include merging the two civil services.

The future of the police force in Gaza as well as Hamas’s powerful armed wing are other key disputes, with the Islamist group refusing to disarm.

Abbas insists the PA have security control of the enclave of two million people.

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