JERUSALEM – Israel said Saturday that it would close its border crossing to thousands of Gaza workers after a series of rockets were fired from the territory ruled by the militant Hamas group in recent days.
The Palestinians denounced the move as “collective punishment" of the impoverished territory's 2 million residents, who have lived under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces nearly 15 years ago.
The rocket fire came amid near-daily clashes at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site over the past week, with Palestinians hurling stones and fireworks and Israeli police entering the compound and firing rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades.
The violence in Jerusalem, and a string of deadly attacks inside Israel and raids across the occupied West Bank, have raised fears of another war between Israel and Hamas like the one that broke out under similar circumstances last year.
Israel said Palestinian militants fired two rockets late Friday, with one landing in an open area inside Israel and the other falling inside Gaza. Palestinian media reported that two Gaza residents were wounded by the rocket that fell short. There was no immediate comment from health officials.
Another rocket was fired from Gaza early Saturday, but the military did not say where it landed. There were no reports of casualties or damage.
The Israeli military body that coordinates civilian affairs in Gaza said the crossing used by workers would not be re-opened on Sunday, the start of the work week. “The re-opening of the crossing will be decided accordingly with a security assessment,” it said in a statement.
In recent months, Israel had issued thousands of work permits to Palestinians from Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces nearly 15 years ago.
Israel portrayed the move as a goodwill gesture in order to maintain calm, but the permits — which can be revoked at any time — also give it a strong form of leverage over Palestinians. Israel grants permits to some 12,000 Palestinians in Gaza and over 100,000 to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, mostly for work in construction and other menial jobs.
The Gaza workers union said the closure was “collective punishment” and would hurt the already suffering economy, where unemployment hovers around 50%. It said the timing of the closure, just before the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, would compound the pain for families struggling to make ends meet.
Sami Amassi, the head of the union, said the permits themselves were meant to “exploit” the workers for political purposes, rather than improve their lives.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the move “aims at tightening the siege and is a form of aggression that we cannot accept.”
“This will not succeed. The police of collective punishment against the Palestinians has always proven to fail," he told The Associated Press.
Israel captured east Jerusalem — which includes major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims — along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally, and has built Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank that now house nearly 500,000 settlers alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade.
The violence in Jerusalem has been centered on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Jews consider the hilltop on which it is built to be their holiest site, and refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of two Jewish temples in antiquity.
The site lies at the emotional heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and clashes there have often ignited violence elsewhere.
Akram reported from Hamilton, Canada.