Gaza Watch – The Latest News

Supporters of Fatah gather in Gaza City. (Photo: Mohammed Salem/Reuters) Supporters of Fatah gather in Gaza City. (Photo: Mohammed Salem/Reuters) by Samara Greenberg GazaWATCH Palestinian Unity? Following Operation Pillar of Defense and the UN General Assembly vote granting the Palestinian Authority (PA) non-member observer state status, in December Hamas and Fatah pledged to focus on Palestinian unity. In a goodwill gesture by Hamas, 17 Fatah members expelled in the 2007 war were invited to return to their homes in Gaza. Meanwhile, the PA released some Hamas members from its prisons in the West Bank and opened Hamas facilities previously closed for security reasons.

 

As part of fostering an environment for reconciliation, the Palestinian Authority allowed residents in the West Bank to rally in celebration of Hamas’s 25th anniversary on December 13 and 14, ending a five-year ban. Senior Fatah officials participated in the Hamas rally in Nablus. During that rally, Hamas supporters called for Palestinian unity and attacks against Israel, chanting: “Qassam, repeat it, Tel Aviv, destroy it” and “March, Hamas, march…You are the cannon, we are the bullets.” Hamas rallies were also held in Ramallah and Hebron, where boys with plastic M-16 rifles and models of Hamas’s long-range rockets celebrated the terrorist movement’s anniversary.

Following Hamas’s rallies in the West Bank, the Islamist movement, in return, granted Fatah permission to rally in Gaza to mark the party’s 48th anniversary, which it did on January 4, 2013. Hamas had banned Fatah-related celebrations following its 2007 takeover of the Strip. Hundreds of thousands of supporters attended the Fatah rally, which was described by Fatah and Hamas leaders as a step towards unity. High-level Fatah officials also attended the event after entering Gaza for the first time since being ousted in 2007. Abbas did not attend the event, but addressed the crowd on a large screen. The event was canceled midway due to overcrowding and shoving matches between separate Fatah factions.

According to a Reuters report in the first week in January, Cairo is currently preparing to invite Hamas and Fatah to Egypt for reconciliation talks within two weeks.

Even with their talk of reconciliation, Hamas leaders continue to illustrate that they favor a complete Hamas takeover of the Palestinian political environment. Early in December, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar called on Fatah to join Hamas in fighting Israel and to stop its peace process efforts. “Our hands are extended to Fatah to join the program of [armed] resistance and the liberation of Palestine,” he said. “Let’s join hands and carry the rifle together.” In addition, Deputy Political Bureau Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on Facebook that PA President Abbas should give control over the West Bank to Hamas. The comment was made in response to a threat by Abbas that he would “return the PA keys to Israel” if no progress is made in peace talks.

According to a report in The Sunday Times, Hamas, at Iran’s request, is preparing to take over the West Bank as it did Gaza in 2007. Iran is reportedly interested in creating a proxy force in the West Bank to give it another base from which to retaliate against Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear program.

Living Situation in Gaza

Hamas announced it would pardon collaborators with Israel who turned themselves in to the government, and then train them as Hamas fighters. After the amnesty period, all suspected collaborators will be tried and sentenced. The announcement follows last month’s public execution of suspected collaborators during Operation Pillar of Defense.

Hamas issued an order demanding Gaza-based communication companies stop working with Israeli companies “to protect our society from the dangers of pornographic websites online and on mobile phones.” The government also cited “unfair competition” as a motivating factor behind its move.

Hamas in December banned Gaza journalists from working with “all Zionist media,” which the Hamas government called “hostile.” It also warned government officials against giving interviews to the Israeli press. Israeli media outlets rely on Palestinian journalists to receive their news from Gaza, and this ban will greatly hinder the information that the Israeli media can provide to its public about the Strip.

Hamas seeks to reopen Gaza’s only airport, closed in 2001 after being damaged by Israel, and has asked for Egypt’s help in opening the facility.

Fathi Hamad, Gaza’s interior minister, released 80 prisoners from Gaza jails in celebration of the United Nations’ decision to upgrade the Palestinians’ status within the body.

Yemen said it would offer jobs to Gazan graduates in a variety of fields after Gaza’s Ministry of Education reached out to countries in an effort to ease its unemployment rate. More than 27,000 Gazan graduates are currently unemployed.

Hamas Political Leadership

Hamas leader in exile Khaled Mashaal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip in early December just two weeks after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense. Mashaal spent four days in the area, touring the region and speaking at a rally to commemorate Hamas’s 25th anniversary. At the rally, attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters, a large model of an M-75 rocket, recently launched at Israel and believed to be capable of traveling 45 miles, was erected on stage bearing the stamp “Made in Gaza” in English. Mashaal told the crowd: “Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it.” He added, “Statehood will be the fruit of resistance,” meaning violence, “not negotiations.” Mashaal ended his visit with a promise to pursue reconciliation with Fatah.

 

Hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters gather in Gaza City near a large replica of an M-75 that bore the words “Made in Gaza.” (Photo: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times)

Mashaal was reportedly set to retire by the end of December, but there has been no confirmation that he stepped-down from his post. According to Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mashaal’s deputy and expected front-runner for the leader’s position, the replacement process has been delayed due to worries of a potential military strike by Israel, making it difficult for the Hamas leadership to meet. The movement is also reportedly having trouble holding internal elections in the West Bank.

Ahmed Halabiyeh, director of Hamas’s Jerusalem Department, called for a third intifada against Israel in response to the Israeli government’s approval to build new homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinians should use various methods against Israel, he said, first and foremost “martyrdom operations.”

Muhammad Qunneita, a senior official from Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, was killed in Syria while fighting with rebel brigades. He reportedly trained several rebel units while in Syria. A Hamas source in Gaza said Qunneita left the Qassam Brigades before traveling to the war-torn country.

Security Situation in Gaza

Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad announced that the terrorist group plans to establish a defense ministry in Gaza. When established, the Hamas defense ministry would be the first of its kind for Palestinians, as the Palestinian Authority does not have one.

Human Rights Watch released a report calling out “Palestinian armed groups in Gaza” for violating “the laws of war during the November 2012 fighting by launching hundreds of rockets toward population centers in Israel.” It also noted that at least two Palestinians were killed when rockets fell short, and that “armed groups repeatedly fired rockets from densely populated areas, near homes, businesses, and a hotel, unnecessarily placing civilians in the vicinity at grave risk from Israeli counter-fire.” A Hamas spokesman rejected the Human Rights Watch report, calling it biased.

European monitors of the Gaza-Egypt Rafah crossing have reportedly asked to return to Rafah following Operation Pillar of Defense. The European Union Border Assistance Mission in Rafah, which began operating at the crossing in 2005 after Israel’s disengagement as part of an agreement between Israel and the PA, left following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Hamas has denied their request to return unless the EU convinces Israel to reopen the airport and seaport in Gaza, according to Hamas Parliament Member Ismail al-Ashqar. The EU hoped its return would help maintain the current Gaza-Israel ceasefire.

Gazans have already begun rebuilding the smuggling tunnels between the Strip and Sinai after many were destroyed by Israel in Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel said it targeted 140 of the tunnels, while Hamas acknowledged that Israeli strikes hit some 60 percent of the tunnels.

Security Situation in Sinai

Egypt reportedly pledged to increase the number of passengers the Rafah crossing can manage, and to remove all Gazan residents on a blacklist preventing them from exiting Gaza through Rafah.

Egypt prevented large quantities of weapons from being smuggled into Gaza during three separate instances since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense. Cairo’s anti-smuggling measures are part of Egyptian-U.S. coordination efforts following the operation in which Egypt has access to U.S. technological measures and the two sides are cooperating on intelligence.

In a separate incident, Egyptian forces in early January captured American made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as other rockets with varying ranges, headed for Gaza. It is believed the rockets came from Libya.

Aid and Trade

Despite the continuous rocket attacks at Israel during November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s crossings into Gaza remained open for goods and people. The pedestrian crossing between Gaza and Israel saw 787 people cross through, while 540 truckloads of goods were permitted to enter Gaza. Only 431 passed through due to the threat from rocket fire. Israel delivered 150 trucks carrying 6,000 tons of food; 5 truckloads of medical goods (20 truckloads were arranged); and approved 186 requests for medical patients and escorts to cross into Israel.

Israel at the end of December agreed to allow long-banned building materials into Gaza and will continue to do so as long as the border remains quiet. Thus far, shipments of gravel for Gaza’s private sector have entered the Strip, and Israel plans to allow 20 truckloads of gravel through to Gaza each day. According to a military spokesman, “The longer the calm persists, the more we’ll weigh additional easings of restrictions that will benefit the private sector.” The shift in Israeli policy is part of incremental Israeli concessions to Hamas following the ceasefire after Operation Pillar of Defense that also bolsters Israeli-Egyptian cooperation.

Egypt at the end of December also allowed shipments of building materials into Gaza for the first time since 2007. The materials, including cement and steel, were paid for by Qatar, which has pledged to donate $400 million towards building projects in Gaza. The transfer was reportedly made in consultation with Israel and does not signify the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing to commercial goods, which is sought by Hamas.

Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh called upon the international community to assist Gaza in its reconstruction following Operation Pillar of Defense. The damage has been assessed at $250-545 million. Following Israel’s 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead, states pledged some $4.8 billion for Gaza reconstruction but never actually donated the money. Only weeks before the November fighting, Qatar pledged to donate $400 million.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei commented on Operation Pillar of Defense and praised Hamas and Islamic Jihad for their “bravery” in fighting Israel. He also said the war illustrated that “If all [Muslim] sides unite with each other, God’s promise for emergence of comfort after termination of hardships will come true.” Iran is also reportedly planning to send medical supplies and food to Gaza.

A delegation of Europeans visited the Gaza Strip to take part in a fact-finding mission following Operation Pillar of Defense. A few days later, an Indonesian delegation traveled to Gaza to offer diplomatic assistance to the Palestinian people. This was the country’s second visit to the Strip.

One hundred twenty Malaysian activists entered Gaza and delivered 1.8 million ringgits, or almost $600,000 in aid. Most of the funds will be made available to farmers and fishermen through microcredit loans.

Two Lebanese delegations visited Gaza in December. The first was lead by Ali Baraka, Hamas’s representative in Lebanon. Baraka’s purpose was to meet with Hamas officials including Ismail Haniyeh and Ahmad Bahar. The second delegation was lead by the Lebanese deputy minister of foreign trade.

2012 Rocket Count

December: 0 rockets, 2 mortar shells

November:  1,734 rockets, 83 mortars; 1 improvised explosive device (IED); 3 anti-tank attacks; 1 anti-aircraft missile launching; 1 explosive tunnel attack; 3 rockets launchings from Sinai

October: 116 rockets, 55 mortars; 2 IED attacks and 1 anti-aircraft missile launching

September: 17 rockets, 8 mortars; 1 IED and 1 anti-tank weapon also used

August: 21 rockets, 3 mortars; including 1 rocket launched from Sinai

July: 18 rockets, 9 mortars

June: 197 rockets, 21 mortars

May: 4 rockets, 2 mortars

April: 10 rockets

March: 173 rockets, 35 mortars

February: 36 rockets, 1 mortar shell

January: 9 rockets, 7 mortars

Total count for 2012: 2,335 rockets; 226 mortar shells

JPC researchers Michael Johnson and Joshua Ely contributed to this report.