Israel partially reopens only goods crossing with Gaza

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel partially reopened its only goods crossing with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after a two-week closure prompted by border tensions and incendiary kites sparked fears of a severe fuel shortage in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Fuel trucks began entering through the Kerem Shalom crossing at noon while food and medicine deliveries that had not been subject to the closure were set to continue.

But other types of goods will remain off-limits for now as Israel continues to demand a complete end to the kites and balloons that have been carrying flaming cargo over the border to set alight Israeli farmland.

"Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided that Kerem Shalom will partially reopen and as of today at 12:00 pm (0900 GMT) it will be possible to transfer gas and fuel into the Gaza Strip, in addition to food and medicine," Lieberman's office said.

The statement noted that the number of kites and balloons carrying firebombs into Israeli territory had been reduced but some were still being launched.

It said the crossing could return to full activity soon, "conditioned on the full cessation of fire-balloon launches and friction on the fence".

Israel says the devices have sparked hundreds of fires since April and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Palestinians in Gaza see the kites and balloons as legitimate resistance against Israel's more than 10-year blockade.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, had not responded to the partial reopening.

The Israeli move followed urgent warnings from United Nations officials that emergency fuel supplies were running low in Gaza and the shortage was beginning to affect hospitals and water sanitation.

The coastal enclave suffers from a severe lack of electricity and relies on fuel-powered generators during outages that last hours at a time.

- 'Fast depleted' -

There have been months of tension between Israel and Hamas that saw two separate military flare-ups over the past couple of weekends.

The escalation has led to fears of another conflict between the two sides, who have fought three wars since 2008.

Following the latest round of violence on Friday, Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire brokered by Egypt and UN officials that has since largely held.

Israel had carried out a wave of air strikes that killed three Hamas militants after one of its soldiers was shot dead along the Gaza border earlier that day.

The weekend before saw the most serious exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the last war in 2014.

Israel announced on July 9 that the goods crossing was being closed to most deliveries, partly in response to the firebombs and other incidents along the border fence.

On July 17, it further tightened the restrictions to also prevent fuel deliveries while reducing the fishing zone Israel enforces off Gaza from six to three nautical miles.

Tension along the Gaza border increased when mass protests and clashes began in late March. They have continued at varying levels since then.

At least 149 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli fire since March 30. The soldier shot dead on Friday was the first Israeli killed.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to keep Hamas from obtaining weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes.

But UN officials and rights groups have repeatedly called for the blockade to be lifted, citing worsening humanitarian conditions in the enclave of two million people.

Beyond the electricity crisis, there is a lack of clean water and other infrastructure in the Strip, where poverty and unemployment are rife.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Jamie McGoldrick, said on Sunday that "supplies of emergency fuel provided by the UN for critical facilities in Gaza are being fast depleted".

He called on Israel to end restrictions on fuel imports and warned that hospitals could soon be forced to close, with emergency supplies set to run out in early August.

Gaza's only other goods crossing is at Rafah on the Egyptian border.

That checkpoint had largely been kept closed in recent years, but Egypt opened it in mid-May and it is has mostly remained so since.