November 24, 2012

Israel eases Gaza restrictions after truce

Farmers can visit their land near the border and fishermen can go further from shore.

The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza residents said Saturday that Israel has eased some border restrictions as part of its truce with the Palestinian territory’s Hamas rulers, allowing farmers to visit land near its security fence and letting fishermen head further out to sea.

The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire ended eight days of cross-border fighting that claimed 166 Palestinian and six Israeli lives, according to health officials.

As part of the deal, Israel and Hamas are now to negotiate a further easing of the Gaza border blockade, first imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

Also Saturday, tens of thousands of Gaza children returned to school for the first time since fighting ended late Wednesday. About half of Gaza’s 1.6 million people are children.

In 245 U.N.-run schools, the day was dedicated to letting children share what they experienced, in hopes of helping them deal with trauma, educators said.

In a sixth-grade class in Gaza City, boys eagerly raised their hands when asked by their science teacher to share their stories in the presence of a reporter. Mohammed Abu Sakr, 11, said that earlier this week, he witnessed an Israeli missile striking a car and engulfing it in flames. The boy said he had trouble sleeping and eating afterwards, and still feels scared.

Thirty-four children and minors under the age of 18 were among those killed in the fighting, said Gaza health officials and local human rights groups. A total of 156 Palestinians were killed during the fighting and 10 died later of their wounds, they said.

The exchanges of fire were the bloodiest between Israel and Hamas in four years. Israel launched the offensive to put an end to escalating Gaza rocket fire on Israeli towns. Israel said it reached its objectives, while Hamas claimed victory because Israel didn’t make good on threats to send ground troops into the territory, as it had done four years earlier.

The truce is to lead to a new border deal for Gaza, with Egypt hosting indirect talks between Israel and Hamas. Israel has shunned Hamas as a terrorist group and refuses to negotiate with it directly.

Israeli demands that Hamas halt weapons smuggling into Gaza, while Hamas seeks free movement for people and goods in and out of Gaza.

After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel and then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sealed Gaza to isolate the Islamic militants and make it harder for them to govern.

The restrictions have since been eased because of international pressure on Israel and because of regime change in Egypt. Both Hamas and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, elected earlier this year, are members of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Before the Nov. 14 start of the fighting, Gaza received most of its consumer goods through an Israeli cargo crossing, while Israel banned virtually all exports and travel from Gaza, preventing the area’s battered economy from bouncing back.

Items restricted by Israel, such as construction materials, were brought into Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, along with weapons for Hamas.

Israel also restricted the movement of Gaza’s fishermen and farmers in border areas, citing security concerns.

On Saturday, fishermen were able to sail six nautical miles out to sea, or double the previous limit, said Mahfouz Kabariti, head of the local fishermen’s association. He said several fishermen already made the journey Saturday.

“This is an opportunity and a chance for a better catch, though it is still a limited area,” said Kabariti, who represents some 3,500 fishermen.

Israeli navy boats have been enforcing a sea blockade in an attempt to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza. The restrictions on fishermen have fluctuated over the years, linked to the ups and downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Meanwhile, some Gaza residents said they were able to enter an Israeli-enforced buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border Saturday with Israel without fear of being fired on.

Israel’s military carved out a 300-meter-wide zone several years to try to prevent militants from sneaking into Israel. The zone gobbled up scarce acres of farmland in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

On Friday, hundreds of Palestinians surged toward the border fence, but Israeli soldiers fired to push them back, killing one man and wounding at least 19 people.

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