Netanyahu blocks Gaza aid as tensions flare
GAZA CITY - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Wednesday with a "lethal" escalation of violence in Gaza, after blocking aid to the besieged strip in response to the wounding of an Israeli soldier.
Weeks of relative calm in the Gaza Strip ended Tuesday when the Israeli army and Hamas fighters exchanged fire along the fence separating the enclave in two separate incidents.
An Israeli officer was lightly wounded when a bullet hit his helmet.
Israeli tanks struck two Hamas positions in Gaza, killing a militant, while overnight Israeli warplanes struck what the army said was a Hamas military camp in northern Gaza.
Netanyahu blocked $15 million of Qatari aid that was expected to be transferred to Gaza, and told Israeli soldiers he would respond with force to any further hostilities.
"Maybe there is someone in Gaza who thinks he can stick his head up; I suggest that they understand that the response will be lethal and very painful," Netanyahu said.
"We are ready for any scenario and escalation," he said at a military exercise in southern Israel, quoted by his office.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008 and fears of a fourth round remain, although violence has abated since November under an informal truce.
Under the agreement Israel has allowed Gulf state Qatar, a Hamas ally, to bring in aid to the strip, including $15 million a month to pay salaries of Hamas civil servants and assist impoverished residents.
The January payment had been expected to enter Gaza on Wednesday or Thursday but Netanyahu blocked it after the flare-up, an Israeli official confirmed.
This is the first time that Israel has admitted to obstructing the transfer, which was already delayed by two weeks.
The payment would be the third of six planned tranches, totalling $90 million, in connection with the truce.
Israel's permission is required since the payment, in cash, must be delivered via its territory.
Hamas is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, and banks are hesitant to make the transfer.
Jamie McGoldrick, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said Gazans were still counting on the Qatari payment going ahead soon.
"People want it to happen," he said. "It was welcome."
Qatar last year also provided Gaza with fuel deliveries to ease a severe electricity shortage.
"I think the fuel that came in was seriously welcomed by everybody who was affected by it, which is the whole of the population in Gaza," McGoldrick said.
At the funeral of the Hamas fighter Wednesday, mourners called for revenge. The body was accompanied by members of Hamas's military wing.
Israel maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip, a densely-populated territory wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
The 'Jewish state' says it is necessary to isolate Hamas but critics say it amounts to collective punishment of the enclave's two million residents.
The Qatari payments are controversial in Israel, where they have sparked opposition from right-wing activists and politicians.
In November, Israel's defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned after accusing Netanyahu of being soft on Hamas following another flare-up.
McGoldrick said any new uptick in hostilities would cause immense suffering for Gazans.
"They live in a very fragile environment," he said.
"If you were to interrupt that in any way, any type of escalation which would just slow down or make things more difficult, it's going to have a detrimental effect on hundreds of thousands of people here."
Netanyahu is running for a fifth term in April 9 elections, having long portrayed himself as "Mr Security" to Israelis.
Widely shared images of suitcases of cash being sent into Gaza through Israel could prove awkward for the right-wing premier.
The father of Hadar Goldin -- an Israeli soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war and whose body Hamas is still believed to hold -- told army radio Tuesday he believes the funds are ultimately going to Hamas.
"That's what happens when you capitulate to terrorism," Simha Goldin said.
Gaza has seen weekly Hamas-backed demonstrations along the separation fence since March 2018, calling for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and elsewhere to be able to return to their former lands from which they or their forebears were forcibly expelled during the 1948 war that founded the 'Jewish state'.
Israel says Hamas is using the protests as cover to carry out violence.
At least 244 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since March, among them civilians who have been shot during the protests, including children and medical personnel.
Some others have been killed by Israeli tank fire and air strikes targeting Hamas positions.
Two Israeli soldiers have been killed.