Gaza fighters rally amid tough new sanctions from Israel: 'We don't want war but it's inevitable'

Granted rare access to a militant training ground in Gaza, The Independent sees that both sides seem to feel war is increasingly likely

Bel Trew
Thursday 12 July 2018 18:10 BST
Gaza militant groups prepare for war amid tough new sanctions from Israel

Under the camouflage of an olive grove in Gaza, Abu Khalid prepares his brigade for a war he says is inevitable, but that he doesn’t want.

The commander’s male and female fighters, in military fatigues and balaclavas, creep through the undergrowth clutching Kalashnikovs. Above them the Israeli surveillance drones circle with a persistent mosquito whine.

Khalid claims his Resistance Brigade has fully replenished its arsenal of weapons since the last war with Israel, in 2014, during which 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed.

The fighters in the far-left militant group, from the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, are once again on high alert, believing Israel is “gunning for a war”.

“The Israeli occupation is pushing for a new war which will be bigger and far more destructive than the last,” says the commander, flanked by a heavily-armed unit of fighters.

“If the Israelis keep shooting and killing Palestinians on the borders… if they will keep imposing the blockade on Gaza, then the war will be inevitable,” he adds.

Militants in Gaza say they believe Israel is ‘gunning for a war’ (Bel Trew/The Independent )

To get rare access to this training ground The Independent was taken through a maze of dirt roads and farms. The fighters, who operate in a cell-like structure, rarely appear in military uniform above ground, to avoid Israeli airstrikes.

Abu Khalid says the central operations room that coordinates Gaza’s myriad armed factions has agreed to only respond in kind to attacks from Israel, in order not to escalate the situation.

He said, like the rest of the Gaza population, the brigade “doesn’t want a war”.

We are ready, we can mobilise within hours

Leader of the Resistance Brigade’s women’s unit 

“But we are concerned that Israel is gunning for one.”

The pressure is mounting. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire during 14 weeks of protests and clashes on the Gaza-Israel border. Gaza’s fighters have fired volleys of rockets into Israel; the Israelis have retaliated with airstrikes.

The leader of the Resistance Brigade’s 10-women unit, set up in 2009, says they therefore have to plan.

“We are ready, we can mobilise within hours,” she says, tapping her battered rifle.

The inevitability of the conflict appeared even closer this week when Israel tightened restrictions on Gaza, closing its only commercial crossing with Israel, a financial lifeline for the 30 mile long enclave that has been under a crippling Israeli blockade for 11 years.

The Israelis also reduced Gaza’s fishing zone to six nautical miles, having temporarily expanded it to nine.

The Israeli army said on Monday that they imposed the measures due to the “ongoing arson and additional terror attacks” on Israel by Hamas, the armed group that has run Gaza since 2007.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have marched on the border with Israel since 30 March, demanding the right to return to their ancestral lands they were forced from or fled during the conflict which culminated in the 1948 creation of Israel.

Some protesters have attempted to cut the fence.

Others have taken to launching homemade burning kites and balloons at Israel during the rallies, sparking at least 750 wild fires on Israeli soil that the Israeli fire service says has scorched around 2,600 hectares of land.

Israel has responded with live fire, killing dozens of people and injuring more than 13,000 according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. No Israelis have been killed.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has vowed to use a ‘heavy hand’ against Hamas 

The UN has condemned Israeli’s use of force as “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate” in a resolution adopted in June. Israel defended its response, saying the marches were violent.

On Monday the Israeli military said the burning kites, and the recent discovery of a fighting tunnel from a military base in Gaza to the sea, were the final straw.

“The current situation doesn’t allow the residents of southern Israel to safely maintain their daily routine,” the army statement read.

“Should these severe conditions continue, IDF measures will persist and intensify.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has vowed to use a “heavy hand” against Hamas and promised “other steps” in the future.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defence minister, maintained Israel was not seeking a new Gaza flare-up but warned one was possible.

“The way Hamas is conducting itself – it is simply liable to spiral out of control, and it is liable to pay the whole price,” he said.

Hamas, for its part, has urged the international community to intervene, calling the new restrictions a “crime against humanity”.

Islamic Jihad, which controls one of Gaza’s most powerful armed factions, went one step further, saying it was “declaration of war”.

If the Israelis launch the war, we will start from the level of the worst day of 2014 and escalate from there. The resistance is on high alert 

Commander, Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigade 

A day before the new restrictions were announced, a commander in Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades told The Independent that the Israelis’ use of “extreme force” was breaking the ceasefire agreement brokered in Cairo after the 2014 war.

“The resistance is committed to the truce as long as the Israelis are. We are not seeking war, but if it is imposed on us we will fight it. And these actions, including tightening the blockade, lead to the escalation of the security scene in Gaza,” he says.

The commander, who refused to be identified for security reasons, said Islamic Jihad fighters were preparing “day and night” for the war.

“If the Israelis launch the war, we will start from the level of the worst day of 2014 and escalate from there. The resistance is on high alert,” he added.

Civilians in Gaza, meanwhile, said a new war would be devastating as conditions in the enclave have never been so bad.

Over 40 per cent of workers are unemployed, the highest jobless rate in the world. Access to basic utilities such as clean water and power has deteriorated.

Gaza’s health system is also in a state of collapse. Hospital officials say they are dangerously low on supplies of key drugs and equipment, including types of anaesthetic.

Amid the shortages, half the population depends on international aid. But that is also dwindling.

UNRWA, the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, has revealed that it is suffering from a $217m (£164m) funding shortfall, the largest in its history – the Trump administration announced it was halving its contributions to the body.

UNRWA officials warned of impending cuts to employment programmes, housing assistance and mental health support in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said the “unprecedented” funding crisis would have a massive impact on Gaza, where UNRWA feeds a million food-insecure people or approximately half Gaza’s population.

“Imagine if you have a million hungry and angry people on the doorstep of Israel?” he told The Independent.

Compounding the misery is an internal battle between Palestine’s two rival factions: Hamas in Gaza and their secular rivals Fatah in the West Bank.

Imagine if you have a million hungry and angry people on the doorstep of Israel? 

Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman 

A reconciliation deal signed in Cairo in October was meant to see Hamas cede administrative control of the strip to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA).

But the agreement collapsed in March with the attempted assassination of the PA’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, during a rare visit to Gaza. Fatah blamed Hamas, which vehemently denied the accusation.

In a bid to pressure Hamas to let go, last April the PA ordered early retirement for nearly a third of its 60,000 Gaza employees, as well as restrictions on electricity access to Gaza. In May this year the PA slashed salaries in Gaza by at least 20 per cent.

Gaza fighters training under the cover of olive trees to avoid detection by Israeli drones (Bel Trew/The Independent )

Cash-strapped Hamas has also been unable to pay its own 40,000 employees in full.

A high-level delegation from Hamas is due in Egypt this week for indirect talks with Fatah, but officials from both sides expressed little hope of any meaningful progress.

Gaza residents, meanwhile, said that without salaries and sufficient aid, they cannot survive another war.

“I haven’t been paid in 60 days, there is no work for my husband. We have 20 hours of power cuts every day and little water already,” says Suzan, a teacher and a mother-of-six.

For all the bark and bluster, the fighters reluctantly agree.

“Gaza is at boiling point. The people can’t take any more,” says one, admitting his own family was struggling.

“But if something doesn’t give, there will be an explosion.”

Additional reporting by Nedal Hamdouna

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