Middle East

Tensions high between Israel and Gaza a year after truce

Masked men carry rocket-propelled grenades on 14 November 2013
Image caption Despite the heavy losses, Hamas claimed victory in last year's conflict

One year on from a ceasefire that ended eight days of violence between Israel and Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip, the truce often looks shaky.

There are frequent breaches of the agreement and both sides continue to prepare for the possibility of further fighting.

Over the past week, Hamas has used the anniversary of the conflict to show off its arsenal of weapons and to vow to continue its armed struggle against Israel.

Thousands of fighters from its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, staged parades on the streets of Gaza.

They wore camouflage outfits and the green bandanas of Hamas. Some carried rifles or rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Grad rocket launchers and locally-made M75 missiles - the type fired at Tel Aviv last year - were displayed on the backs of lorries.

"I brought my son here. I'm very proud of al-Qassam Brigades," said Abu Ahmed from the al-Shati refugee camp at one rally in Gaza City. "Now Israel will know that we have many weapons."

More than 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in last November's clashes.

Despite the heavy losses, Hamas claimed victory. It remains defiant.

"We are stronger, we are ready to defend ourselves," says one of the group's founders, Mahmoud Zahhar. "Everybody should understand we won't be destroyed by any power in this region."

Rocket fire decreases

Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defence, which it said was aimed at ending rocket fire from Gaza, with the assassination of the head of the Qassam Brigades, Ahmed Jabari, on 14 November 2012.

The week that followed saw the fiercest fighting since a 22-day Israeli offensive ended in 2009.

The Israeli military carried out hundreds of air strikes on the Palestinian coastal territory, while hundreds of rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas and other armed groups.

Under the terms of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Israel agreed to end all hostilities and targeted killings, while all Palestinian factions were to stop launching rockets and staging cross-border attacks.

Image caption Iron Dome has had to intercept far fewer rockets in the past year

While its strong rhetoric against Israel continues, Hamas has largely kept to its pledge to prevent rocket fire.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) says that since Operation Pillar of Defence about 50 rockets have been launched from Gaza, compared with 1,500 the previous year.

Those fired have caused little damage, landing in open areas or being intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system. However, civilians in their range are still forced to run for cover whenever the "red alert" siren sounds.

"This year has seen a great improvement as far as the security and safety of the Israeli communities around the Gaza Strip," says IDF spokesman Lt-Col Peter Lerner.

"This is due to the outcome and results of the military operation Pillar of Defence last year and it's in the aftermath of the agreement."

However, the IDF says there have been other "offensive actions against Israel" that constitute breaches of the ceasefire.

Palestinians point to air strikes and other military action by Israel since the truce was signed as evidence that it has breached it multiple times.

Tunnel fears

Close to Israel's border with Gaza, soldiers demonstrate the remote-controlled vehicle that they use for their patrols. They also use cameras and unmanned drones to carry out surveillance.

Last month, a 1.7km (one-mile) tunnel under the border was discovered, stretching from the Khan Younis area to a kibbutz in Israel.

Image caption Israel's military found a long tunnel built by militants from Gaza

The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades said it dug the passage, apparently with the intention of carrying out a surprise attack.

Palestinian militants used a similar tunnel in 2006 to capture an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and kill two others.

The IDF says that three tunnels have been found near the Gaza border in the past year.

"Hamas is digging tunnels, putting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] near the fence, trying to get over to harm civilians here in Israel," comments Lt Avidav Goldstein. "You can see they are preparing for the next round."

'New battle'

Another Israeli concern is that militant groups in Gaza have managed to rearm since last year's conflict depleted their stockpiles of missiles.

It is estimated that they have now have thousands of rockets once again despite Israel's border restrictions and naval blockade of the Palestinian territory.

Image caption Militants show off the longer-range Gaza-made M75 rocket

Until Egypt recently destroyed many of the smuggling tunnels under its border with the Gaza Strip, large quantities of weapons from Sudan and Libya were transported across its restive Sinai region.

Palestinian militants also boast that they have become increasingly self-sufficient in manufacturing arms.

"When last year's fighting stopped, all the armed factions started repairing the damage to their facilities and making up for losses," Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, the al-Quds Brigades, told the BBC.

"I am confident now that we have all the military equipment we need to engage in a new battle with Israel because we believe that while one battle finishes, the war will last."