Coronavirus imposes calm on Gaza front

Calm has returned between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza, mainly because of the outbreak of the coronavirus and fears of it spreading in the besieged enclave.

al-monitor A woman helps her colleague put on a mask amid coronavirus precautions in a supermarket in Gaza City, Gaza, March 8, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Mar 17, 2020

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Gaza Strip has witnessed, since the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, a complete calm, especially in relation to Israel, as the launch of incendiary balloons and rockets into Israeli towns has ceased.

The tension along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel has persisted over several months amid mutual accusations related to the implementation of the truce recently reached under Egyptian auspices. 

Since the beginning of 2020, the Gaza Strip has experienced repeated military escalations between the Palestinian resistance factions and Israel, the last and most dangerous of which took place Feb. 23, after the Israeli army killed an Islamic Jihad militant and dragged his body with a military bulldozer on the security fence in the town of Khuzaa, in southern Gaza. 

In response to this incident, al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad’s military arm, and other factions, launched approximately 60 rockets at Israeli towns. Israel then launched raids targeting militants and training fields in the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding Palestinians.

Yet, when the Higher National Commission for the Great Marches of Return and Breaking the Siege postponed its protests until March 30, Israeli towns witnessed the return of incendiary balloon and rocket launches from the Gaza Strip.

Israel has responded with airstrikes, the tightening of the blockade, limiting the fishing zone, banning exports and imports, and canceling trade permits.

But the tension has disappeared. Israel has not taken major and exceptional measures to ease the siege, and balloons and rockets have disappeared. Calm has returned to the scene.

Many changes had occurred, the most prominent being the spread of coronavirus, and the fear that it would spread in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Political analyst Hani Habib told Al-Monitor, “Coronavirus outbreaks and Israel’s preoccupation with it internally after recording dozens of cases inside [its territories], [explains] the fear of its arrival to Gaza and its spread among 2 million [people] in this narrow geographical area.”

He added, “The burdens that [Israel] will bear as an occupying power and being unable to shirk from its responsibility to provide assistance to the enclave makes the continuation of calm in the interest of both sides.”

The Hamas government in Gaza has taken precautionary measures to prevent the arrival of the virus in the Gaza Strip — where no cases have been recorded so far — including the closure of schools and universities, and the suspension of various activities and gatherings.

Despite the confirmation of the Great Marches of Return commission that a mass demonstration will still take place on Land Day on March 30 — the first protest since the commission's activities were suspended in early 2020 — a source told Al-Monitor that it would probably be canceled. The reliable leadership source in the commission said the final decision would be made later this month, but it hinged on coronavirus developments.

Suhail al-Hindi, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “The commission’s leadership will evaluate the situation and advance the public interest over any other interest. What matters to us is the safety of our people.”

On whether the resumption of mass marches on the border will lead to confrontation with Israel, Hindi said, “We are looking forward to a national day with distinction, with the participation of hundreds of thousands, and to convey our message to the world that we are against the deal of the century [the US peace plan] and we are committed to our national principles, and we hope that it ends without any injuries or victims.”

Several factions canceled field activities in the Gaza Strip in March as a result of coronavirus, and weekly activities in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons were canceled as well.

The Israeli Channel 13 announced March 13 that Israel has allowed, for the first time, the entry of about 200 testing kits to the Gaza Strip to detect the coronavirus.

Hamas did not respond to this news, but it came in conjunction with an announcement from the Ministry of Health in Gaza that the central laboratory in the Rimal Martyrs Center in Gaza is working around the clock to conduct laboratory tests for suspected cases of coronavirus.

Palestinian columnist Mustafa Ibrahim told Al-Monitor that the calm prevailing in Gaza today is mainly the result of “understandings” sponsored by Egypt and Qatar, and the spread of coronavirus has strengthened this calm because everyone is busy facing it and the unwillingness of either side to open other fronts.

Israel Today quoted what it described as senior officials in Gaza as saying that the visit of Palestinian representatives from Gaza to Cairo — following the recent round of fighting between Israel and the Islamic Jihad — contributed to the stability in southern Israel and strengthened efforts aimed at achieving a settlement in Gaza. The sources added that the coronavirus outbreak has also contributed to the calm.

According to the newspaper, Hamas and the armed factions in Gaza fear that should they launch rockets or incendiary balloons or provoke violent clashes at the border, Israel would take advantage of the global concern with the coronavirus outbreak to launch a wide-scale attack on Gaza and carry out targeted assassinations.

But Ibrahim suggested that Israel is not ready, with or without the coronavirus, to gamble with an uncertain war in Gaza, as long as it achieves what it wants calmly. He added that Israeli leaders are currently focusing on forming a new government after three failed attempts within one year. 

Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, agreed that the factions, Israel and the mediators are all keen to maintain calm on the Gaza front.

He told Al-Monitor that a war at this time has "complicated calculations,” especially in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus, and Israel is not ready for hundreds of thousands of Israelis to sit in shelters, which contribute to the spread of the disease. He added that Hamas is also aware of the difficult reality of living in isolated Gaza, so calm is now in everyone's best interest.

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