Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza

Israeli border policemen move away from a burning vehicle during clashes with Palestinians at a checkpoint in Beit El near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP)
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Updated 14 February 2020

Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza

  • Israel has escalated its threats against factions in Gaza

GAZA CITY: Since US President Donald Trump announced his Israel-Palestine peace plan on Jan. 28 — which he referred to as the “Deal of the Century” —  tension in the Gaza Strip has escalated rapidly, with the Gazan side firing rockets and releasing incendiary balloons across the border, and Israel shelling Gaza by night.

Over the past few days, Israel has escalated its threats against factions in Gaza, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Neftali Bennett warning Hamas that Israel would launch a full military assault unless the rockets and balloons sent from Gaza stopped.

Many observers believe that Hamas is seeking to pressure Netanyahu — who is preparing for elections early next month — into easing the siege imposed on Gaza 13 years ago. At the moment, that tactic does not appear to be working, however. 

At the beginning of this month, Israel stopped the entry of cement into Gaza, reduced the number of permits available to Palestinian merchants to enter the West Bank and Israel, and shrunk Gaza’s fishing zone from 15 nautical miles to 10.

In an attempt to prevent further escalation of the situation — potentially into a fourth Intifada — an Egyptian security delegation, headed by the director of the Palestinian Department in Egyptian Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Abdel Khaliq, visited the enclave on Monday to meet with Hamas and major Palestinian forces.

A Palestinian leader who participated in the meeting told Arab News, on condition of anonymity, that the delegation carried several “Israeli messages,” the main one being the threat of a broad military operation unless the rockets and balloons stopped. 

In return, the source said, the delegation pledged that it would pressure Israel to follow up cease-fire conditions agreed with Hamas earlier — through Egyptian mediation — to ease the blockade, allow some goods to enter Gaza, increase the availability of fuel for the power station, and widen the fishing zone.

Talal Abu Zarifa, a member of the Political Bureau of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Arab News, “The resistance factions were the ones who passed a message via the Egyptian delegation stipulating the necessity to lift the siege on Gaza and stop all forms of aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and that more aggression will push the region to escalate.”

Since the Egyptian visit, there has been a marked decrease in the number of balloons and rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, although it has not stopped completely.

Abu Zarifa said that Egypt is “aware of the suffering” of 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, and is keen not to see the situation deteriorate.

Rami Abu Zubaydah, a military-affairs researcher, said, “(Israel) makes various threats regarding the launch of a broad military operation against Gaza. The intervention of the Egyptian mediator may contribute to containing the situation a little, especially since the factions and the occupation do not want to enter into a comprehensive confrontation now, if it is possible to reach an agreement ending the siege of Gaza, realizing that Netanyahu cannot implement any comprehensive agreement in light of the upcoming elections.”

Likewise, Tayseer Mohaisen, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said he did not believe the situation in Gaza would develop into all-out war, despite growing Israeli threats, because Israeli politicians are focused on the upcoming elections, and would not sanction any unpredictable military action at the moment.

Mohaisen added that he views the rocket and balloon launches from Gaza as “a limited wave of escalation aimed at demonstrating public protest against Israel’s failure to comply with the ceasefire understandings, and forcing Israel to ease the blockade.

“The Israeli army is targeting empty fields and sites in Gaza (while attempting to fool) the Israeli public into thinking they have targeted the infrastructure of Hamas,” Mohaisen told Arab News. “This means (Israel) does not want to break its security relationship with Hamas, as any war will hinder the achievement of its strategic goals.”

Commentators expect that the Egyptian security delegation will succeed in its mission, and that Israel will retract its recent measures and introduce further measures to ease the blockade.

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

Workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine, which is visited by a large number of people, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

  • Six Saudi women recovering in Bahrain as Kingdom warns against travel to Italy and Japan

DUBAI: Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.
“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.
The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home.
Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalized.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is now under quarantine.
Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said the number of infected people there had risen to eight.
Bahrain’s Health Ministry said 15 more people, including six Saudi women, had tested positive for the virus after returning from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah. The new cases were carried by Bahraini and Saudi nationals who arrived at Bahrain International Airport from Iran via Dubai or Sharjah.
The Saudi Ministry of Health said that it was coordinating with Bahraini health officials for the treatment of the Saudi women who had visited Iran. They will remain in Bahrain until they are fully recovered. The Kingdom has advised citizens and residents to avoid traveling to Italy and Japan.
Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces.
The head of Qom’s Medical Science University, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city,” adding the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.
Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.
Rouhani called for calm, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.
The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.
Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.
Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centers until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The UAE has banned all flights to and from Iran. The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people.
Emirates, the government-owned carrier based in Dubai, flies daily to Tehran. Its low-cost sister airline, FlyDubai, flies to multiple Iranian cities, as does the Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia.
The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah.
Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.
Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from Iran.
An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease.
The four cases in Kirkuk province brought Iraq’s total to five after it reported its first case on Monday, an Iranian theology student in Najaf. Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak, as it has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranians each year.
The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from China and Iran, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else.”
“I had called for million-man protests and sit-ins against sectarian power-sharing and today I forbid you from them for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else,” he said in a statement. It was not immediately clear how the government’s call on citizens to avoid public gatherings would affect the strength of anti-government protests, and the response of security forces.
A Turkish Airlines plane flying from Iran was diverted to Ankara on Tuesday at the Turkish Health Ministry’s request and an aviation news website said one passenger was suspected of being infected by coronavirus.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency broadcast video showing ambulances lined up beside the plane, with several personnel wearing white protective suits on the tarmac.
The plane was flying from Tehran and had been scheduled to land in Istanbul. Turkey shut its borders to Iran on Sunday and cut flights due to the spread of the virus in that country.
Oman’s Khasab port has suspended the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Feb. 26.