JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said Saturday it was shutting down its main cargo crossing into Gaza after Palestinian protesters caused extensive damage to it, and that it had also destroyed an attack tunnel militants dug near its main pedestrian crossing.
The twin developments come ahead of a potentially charged week along the Israel-Gaza border as weekly protests being staged there are expected to culminate with a potential breach of the border and a surge in casualties.
Once again, thousands of Palestinians protested Friday in various locations along the frontier. Later, a group of Palestinians burned a fuel complex and conveyor belt on their side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, causing more than $9 million in damages and disrupting the import of diesel fuel and building materials, the military said. It said the attack rendered the main fuel and gas lines unusable and caused further damage to electrical infrastructure and other vital equipment.
The military said the Kerem Shalom crossing will be closed until further notice and not before the damage is repaired.
A lengthy closing of the crossing would deliver further devastation to Gaza's already dire humanitarian crisis. The fuel installation is the only way to bring diesel fuel into Gaza for operating generators for hospitals and other key facilities. The military distributed a video showing Palestinians cheering as a fire was set. It was the second such attack on the facility in a week, it said. "Hamas continues to lead the residents of Gaza to destroy the only assistance they receive," the army said.
Late Saturday, the military carried out several airstrikes in the northern Gaza strip, near the Erez border crossing, to destroy a Hamas tunnel that was being built there. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the tunnel was being tracked for weeks and had been destroyed just a few meters (feet) inside Gaza. It's the sixth such Hamas tunnel Israel has destroyed in as many months thanks to the military's new technological means to detect and destroy them.
Hamas called the airstrikes a "failed attempt" to prevent it protests.
"Our people's response will come on Monday by marching" to the fence, it said in a statement.
Conricus said both incidents proved Israel's long-standing claim that Hamas, and other militant groups, were merely using the popular mass protests as cover for attacks against Israel. He said the military was doubling its troops along the border in advance of this week's protests and that Israel would not allow the area to become an active combat zone.
"This really shows the cynicism of the Hamas terror organization toward the citizens they are supposed to care for," Conricus told reporters. "Hamas is killing Gaza with its terrorist activities against civilian facilities."
An extended closing of the cargo crossing could be particularly painful. Cooking gas and fuel, which are delivered to Gaza through Kerem Shalom on a daily basis, are the first and most essential items likely to be affected. A fear of shortage had already engulfed Gaza late Saturday, as more cars were lining up at gas station to stock on diesel and gasoline.
The Hamas-run petrol authority in Gaza ordered that cooking gas not be provided to people with canisters on Sunday. "This is to measure how much we have and to see how much this can serve the citizens," said Khalil Shaqfa of the petrol authority.
Palestinians in Gaza have been staging weekly protests at the border fence against a decade-old blockade of the territory. The demonstrations have been organized by Gaza's Hamas rulers, but are fueled by despair among the territory's 2 million residents. The vast majority are barred from travel and trade, while the blockade has gutted the economy.
A Palestinian was killed and 175 were wounded by Israeli army fire on Friday. The Palestinian health ministry said a teenage boy died Saturday after he was shot in the head by Israeli fire on the Gaza-Israel border.
The death raises to 42 the number of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli forces since weekly protests began on March 30. More than 1,800 have been wounded. The coming week could see a further uptick in violence, as Palestinians are planning much larger protests to coincide with the United States relocating its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Monday and the 70th anniversary of their "nakba," or catastrophe — referring to their mass uprooting during the Mideast war over Israel's 1948 creation — on Tuesday.
Israel says it has a right to defend its border and has accused Hamas of using the protests as a cover for attacking the border. Rights groups say the use of potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters is unlawful.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008. During the most recent conflict in 2014, Israel destroyed 32 tunnels and it has placed a high priority on halting the tunnel threat since Hamas infiltrated Israel during the war. Although they did not manage to reach civilian areas, the infiltrations caught Israel off guard, with one attack killing five soldiers, and terrified the local population.
Israel is building a subterranean barrier to detect and prevent attack tunnels. Israel says the barrier, as well as new technological innovations, have rendered the Hamas tunnel project futile.
Akram reported from Gaza City.