Monday, 28 Sep 2020

Israel strikes Hamas targets in Gaza over fire balloons, amid lockdown due to Covid-19

TEL AVIV/JERUSALEM (REUTERS, NYTIMES) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday (Aug 26) in response to Palestinians in the enclave launching incendiary balloons towards Israel, the military said.

There were no reports of casualties in the strikes that Israel’s military said targeted underground infrastructure belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza.

Hamas has been trying to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza and allow more investment, in part by letting Palestinians launch helium balloons carrying incendiary material that have torched tracts of southern Israeli farmland in recent weeks.

Israel has struck Hamas facilities almost nightly for the past two weeks, saying it would not tolerate the balloons.

Anticipating Israeli attacks after balloon or rocket launchings, Hamas routinely evacuates personnel from its sites.

Mediators from the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar have been working to restore calm.

With tension high, Israel has closed its only commercial crossing with Gaza, banned sea access and halted fuel imports into the coastal strip, leading to its only power plant shutting down last week.

Health officials have voiced concern that the power plant shut down could aggravate a novel coronavirus outbreak in Gaza, which is home to 2 million Palestinians.

Gaza is under lockdown after authorities on Monday reported four new cases of Covid-19 in the territory, a place that had yet to report a single case of community spread. Every known patient had contracted the virus while travelling elsewhere – but these four had not.

The discovery of the first four cases of community transmission of the virus deep inside Gaza set off an epidemiological investigation into the outbreak’s source, and prompted Hamas to impose a 48-hour curfew, a first step in the effort to control the outbreak.

But it has also raised fears that the pandemic could spread quickly in the densely populated enclave, exacerbating the already dire economic situation.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported two new cases of local transmission, which it said were not linked to the first four.

Experts warned that Gaza’s health sector, already devastated by years of war and conflict, lacked the resources to deal with a widespread outbreak.

Dr Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the World Health Organisation’s mission, said Gaza’s medical institutions have only about 100 adult ventilators, most of which were already in use.

“For years, the situation has been going from bad to worse,” said political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada from Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “If we need to shut down for several weeks, I’m worried we could be heading for a disaster.”

On Tuesday, the effects of the new curfew were visible: Mosques, restaurants, cafes, wedding halls and other places were shut. Beaches were practically empty.

Mr Sobhi al-Khazendar, a legal adviser at a gas company in Gaza City, said the virus worried him even more than violent conflicts between Israel and militant groups in the territory.

“When there’s a war, I usually know where it’s safe to go,” said Mr Khazendar, 27. “The virus is different. It can be anywhere and everywhere. I have no idea how I can avoid it.”

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