The month of March marked a new wave of Israeli hostilities toward the besieged Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip. Those hostilities included tightening the siege and a gradual escalation of military attacks that have to date killed 11 Palestinians and injured more than 40.
Previous Israeli military attack on Gaza
At the beginning of March the Israeli army announced its decision to shut down the Karni Crossing in the central Gaza Strip and transfer all imports of goods to the Kerem Shalom Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip. While the army claims this decision was due to security reasons, Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups have expressed concerns about this measure.
Gisha, an Israeli human rights group working on Palestinian freedom of movement, claimed in a statement that the “closing of Karni Crossing will further restrict the ability of Palestinian residents of Gaza to engage in dignified, productive work”.
The Israeli group adds that the closing will also reduce the capacity to provide basic goods to Gaza’s population. The closing of Karni will reduce by 20% the capacity to transport merchandise into the area.
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza based group, “80% of the civilians in Gaza are dependent on food aid provided by the international community”.
All humanitarian aid enters Gaza from Israel while the Rafah border crossing with Egypt is used only for the entrance of people. Goods may enter through the Egyptian border only as part of humanitarian convoys organized occasionally by international solidarity organizations.
Goods may also enter Gaza through tunnels dug on the Egyptian borders, but these are mostly too expensive for the impoverished population.
In addition to tightening the siege on the Palestinians in Gaza,the Israeli army commenced a new military offensive against the population in mid-March.
On 16 March the Israeli air force attacked a Hamas training base near the former settlement of Netzarim. Two Hamas militants, Adana Eshtaiwi, 27 years old, and Ghassan Abu Amro, 25 years old, were killed in the attack, while a third person was injured.
The Israeli military claimed the strike was in response to a single mortar projectile launched from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. No Palestinian faction claimed responsibility for the firing, and the Israeli press reported that the projectile was launched by a small, unknown organization.
Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has generally abstained from firing into Israeli territory while Israel has refrained from targeting manned Hamas facilities.
Two days later the Israeli military reported that its soldiers were attacked by Gaza fighters while "performing a routine activity". Again, no Palestinian faction took responsibility for the attack.
Normally Palestinian factions take responsibility and credit for their attacks on Israeli targets. There have also been cases in which Palestinian military factions claimed attacks that never actually occurred.
The next day, on 19 March, Israeli tanks shot at targets in the Gaza Strip. Five people were injured in this attack, while additional shelling destroyed power lines.
In response to Israeli attacks, Hamas fired mortars into Israel on Saturday 20 March. According to the Israeli police, at least 49 mortars exploded within the regional councils bordering Gaza, including Sdot Negev and Eshkol. Two Israelis were lightly hurt by shrapnel.
In a statement published by the Hamas military wing, the Az a Din al Qassam Brigades, the organization claims that the shelling was a response to “the ongoing aggression against Palestinian people”.
Israel retaliated by shelling Gaza City, Deir el Balah Refugee Camp and Khan Yunis. Five people, including one child, were injured from the shelling.
Gaza Electricity Company spokesman Jamal Ad-Dardasawi said that the Israeli fire damaged a main electrical cable serving Gaza City and the northern Strip, leading to widespread power cuts.
Exchanges of fire have since continued: Palestinian factions target military bases on the Israeli side of the border and Israel targets Palestinian militants and infrastructure inside of Gaza.
On Tuesday 22 March, nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks and 11 were injured.
Among the dead were four member of the Al Hilu family. Two of them were minors: Yasser, 16 years old, and Muhamad Al Hilu, 11 years old.The dead were playing football in the yard when Israeli tanks shelled their home east of Gaza City.
It is difficult to guess Israeli motives for escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip, thus ending more than two years of cease fire. The reasons for the new escalation may include the appointment of a new Israeli army Chief of Staff, and increasing public pressure on the Israeli government to secure release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas. It may also be a consequence of the fact that international attention is concentrated on events in Japan and Libya. It could even be an attempt to preempt negotiations for a new Palestinian government that would include Hamas.
In any case, conditions of the Palestinian population in Gaza will continue to deteriorate. Thus far the Israeli army has managed to force Hamas out of a ceasefire lasting more than two years, and the question is how will this deterioration end. Perhaps a new war in the Middle East?