Approximately 40,000 protesters in the Gaza Strip marched in the rain March 30 to mark the anniversary of 2018’s Great March of Return, calling for a right of return to land Palestinians fled or were coerced to leave in 1948.
Fears of major violence at the Gaza-Israel border did not materialise. Organisers deployed men in orange vests to prevent protesters from approaching the border fence. Still, four Palestinians were killed and more than 200 wounded.
Tensions flared ahead of the anniversary when a rocket hit a house north of Tel Aviv on March 25, injuring seven people. Israel gathered troops at the Gaza border and launched retaliatory strikes. Egyptian mediators shuttled between the different parties to restore calm.
Tareq Baconi, International Crisis Group analyst for Israel-Palestine, said that the protest was less intense than anticipated and was “most likely a sign that an indirect ceasefire agreement had been renegotiated between Israel and Hamas under Egyptian and UN mediation.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised Cairo’s role as mediator, which he said helped avoid a “dramatic” escalation of violence in Gaza.
One day after the protest, Israeli authorities reopened the commercial Kerem Shalom Crossing, letting food and fuel pass into the besieged enclave. The Erez Crossing for people was opened March 31.
Israel also expanded the permitted fishing zone for Gazans to 29km from shore “to prevent humanitarian deterioration in the Gaza Strip,” the coordinator of activities in the Palestinian territories said.
Those measures came after the deadliest year in the Gaza Strip since a major conflict in 2014. Israeli troops at the border killed about 200 Palestinians. One Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Many Gazans participating in protests were reportedly maimed by live fire by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
UN investigators said the IDF may have committed war crimes in its response to the at times violent protests at the Gaza-Israel border. Investigators rejected that Palestinians throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and occasionally explosives constituted “terror activities” by armed groups. Israel has called the report “hostile.”
The indirect agreement between Israel and Hamas, said Baconi, from the Israeli side included steps to improve the economic situation in Gaza, such as the distribution of Qatari fuel and funds, increased movement of goods into Gaza and the expansion of the fishing zone. “This will have an economic impact and ease the humanitarian suffering in the immediate sense,” Baconi said.
Three days after the anniversary, Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political bureau, said Egyptian intelligence officials passed on a timeline for implementation of the ceasefire after relaying Hamas’s demands to the Israeli government. Haniyeh did not provide details of the understanding but said the group’s demands included improving conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
A Palestinian news site reported that meetings between Hamas and the Egyptian delegation led to progress towards a truce with Israel and that announcements about new UN and Qatari development projects were to soon follow.
Despite the announced easing of restrictions on the Gaza Strip, “it’s not a big relief,” said Omar Shaban, founder of the Pal-Think for Strategic Studies think-tank in Gaza.
Referring to the expansion of the fishing zone, he said that more fish would be available in the market but people would not be able to afford them. The fishing industry was just one aspect, he said, “people need jobs and money.”
A UN report in December stated that 53% of Gazans live in poverty and 54% are unemployed. Revenue from fishing, which the United Nations called a “significant source of employment,” varied considerably as restrictions were tightened and eased over the years.
Reports from Gaza said Israeli naval forces prevented fishermen from entering areas further off the coast within the newly declared fishing zone. In addition, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency that Egypt detained four fishermen off the coast of Gaza.
That the restrictions on Gaza were partially lifted was “hardly sufficient to address the humanitarian situation,” said Baconi. “In the longer term, humanitarian suffering can only be alleviated in a sustainable manner through the lifting of the blockade and allowing the free movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.”
Commenting less than a week before elections in Israel on April 9, he added that “this does not look likely given the current political reality in Israel.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is locked in a tight election race for a fifth term, facing a challenge by former IDF head Benny Gantz. “Netanyahu wanted to keep Gaza silent,” said Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.
Israel’s strategic principle, Shaban said, has been to keep the Gaza Strip under pressure while not escalating the situation to the point of collapse. Levy said Netanyahu has always been “very careful” not to go to war.
Speaking to Israeli radio, Netanyahu said all options, “including entering Gaza and occupying it,” were on the table. “But that is the last option and not the first,” he said.
Some measures being discussed as part of the ceasefire agreement would reportedly be implemented after the Israeli elections, which could reshape Israel’s political scene.
For now, “Gaza is still in intensive care,” Shaban said.
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