Israeli-Gulf deals change little at tense Gaza border


Sderot (Israel) (AFP)

As Israel's prime minister celebrated signing landmark accords with two Gulf states in Washington, near the Israeli-Gaza border Tammy Shalev was hunkering down in a bomb shelter.

The latest flare-up with Palestinian militants in the enclave jarred with premier Benjamin Netanyahu's claim that the deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain could "end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all".

The rocket fire from Gaza, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, began Tuesday evening as Netanyahu attended the signing ceremony at the White House.

By Wednesday morning, 15 rockets had been fired, according to the military, which said it responded with air strikes on Hamas targets.

Two people were wounded when a rocket hit the Israeli port city of Ashdod, emergency services said. Nine of the rockets were intercepted by Israeli air defences, according to the army.

The violence came barely two weeks after a truce halted nearly nightly exchanges across the border throughout August.

Shalev, a 30-year-old software engineer, welcomed the Gulf agreements but saw no immediate benefit.

"It's mainly good on paper," she told AFP in the Israeli town of Sderot, close to the Gaza border.

"We don't see it in the day-to-day. Like last night, we didn't sleep."

- 'What about Gaza?' -

Until the Gulf deals, Israel had only signed peace accords with two Arab nations, Egypt and Jordan, following wars with both.

But while many Israelis have welcomed the Gulf accords, in Sderot's main square, resident Yehuda Ben Loulou said Israel's premier "should first solve the main problem in Gaza".

Since 2007 Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza's two million residents and fought three wars with Hamas as well as numerous flare-ups.

Netanyahu "goes to easy countries, with whom we have no problems. They sign agreements. But what about Gaza?" said Ben Loulou, 59, a black-and-white kippa resting on his head.

But David Amar, a retired carpenter and ardent Netanyahu supporter, was more optimistic.

"If the big players in the Arab world make peace with us, it'll certainly force (Palestinian president) Mahmud Abbas to do the same," said the 70-year-old.

The Palestinian Authority, dominated by the Fatah movement led by Abbas, exerts power in parts of the occupied West Bank, but not Gaza. It has been in a bitter stand-off with Hamas for over a decade.

Abbas warned Tuesday the Gulf deals will "not achieve peace in the region" until the US and Israel acknowledge his people's right to a state.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinian leaders have broken off all contacts with the Trump administration over what they see as its bias towards Israel.

A peace initiative unveiled by Washington in January excludes Palestinians' key demands such as an autonomous state with a capital in east Jerusalem.

But Amar, who leaned on crutches and clutched a pro-Netanyahu newspaper with a front page reading: "A new Middle East", said the latest deals would be game-changers.

"Palestinians are stubborn, it'll force them to make peace," he said. "We need a new Palestinian leadership to make peace with us."

But despite the deals, Sderot resident Shalev said her daily life would only improve after a deal bringing lasting calm to the Gaza border.

"Unless this is the way to make peace with the Palestinians in the long-term, which I don't see, then... we don't see the benefits," she said.