Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, have traded fire on a number of occasions in recent weeks, and Hamas-linked groups have launched a wave of incendiary balloons across the frontier that have torched wide swathes of farmland.
Hamas is pressing Israel to ease its blockade on Gaza and allow large-scale development projects. Egypt and Qatar are trying to shore up an informal cease-fire. Those efforts have grown more urgent in recent days as authorities in Gaza have detected the first cases of local transmission of the coronavirus. Hamas has imposed a lockdown in the coastal territory bordering Israel and Egypt, which is home to 2 million Palestinians.
Bassem Naim, a Hamas official, warned of further escalation, saying the “catastrophic conditions the Gaza Strip is experiencing are unprecedented.” He said the situation could lead to an “explosion in which things get out of control.”
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas from building up its arsenal, but critics view it as a form of collective punishment. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and several smaller battles since the closure was imposed.
The restrictions have pushed the local economy to the brink of collapse, leaving more than half the population unemployed, and years of war and isolation have left the health care system ill-equipped to cope with a major outbreak.
In response to the recent attacks, Israel closed Gaza's sole commercial crossing, forcing its only power station to shut down for lack of fuel and leaving Gazans with just a few hours of electricity a day. Israel has also closed the coastal territory's fishing zone.
“The situation in and around Gaza is rapidly deteriorating,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov tweeted. “Militants continue to launch projectiles and incendiary devices. The tightening of closures is making life inside the Strip unbearable. Electricity is down to 3 hours, hospitals barely functioning.”
"I am VERY concerned that escalation is imminent," he added.