By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant groups in Gaza said on Tuesday they would halt cross-border attacks immediately if Israel did the same after the most serious exchanges of aerial fire since a seven-week war in 2014.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, responded by putting the onus on the Palestinians to stop their strikes, saying Israel’s actions would be determined by their “steps on the ground”.
Since Monday, Israeli air strikes have killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, armed factions said. Rocket attacks from Gaza killed a Palestinian, a resident of the occupied West Bank, living in an apartment in Israel, where he worked.
The salvoes were the fiercest since the Gaza war in 2014, the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade as part of the wider Israel-Palestinian conflict.
On Tuesday, the joint command of the Palestinian armed factions in Gaza said in a statement they would abide by a ceasefire mediated by neighboring Egypt “as long as the Zionist enemy does the same”.
As far as the factions were concerned, an official in one of the Palestinian groups told Reuters, “the truce has gone into effect”, conditional on Israel’ actions.
Hamas and other armed factions fired over 400 rockets or mortar bombs across the fenced border after carrying out a surprise guided-missile attack on Monday on a bus that wounded an Israeli soldier, the military said.
Asked if Israel was heading towards a ceasefire, Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told YNet Internet TV:
“I would say that a more accurate definition is that the Israeli military landed a harsh and unprecedented blow on Hamas and the terrorist groups in Gaza, and we will see if that will suffice or whether further blows will be required.”
Hamas said it was retaliating for a botched Israeli commando raid in Gaza that killed one of its commanders and six other gunmen on Sunday. An Israeli colonel was also killed in that incident.
Sirens rang out in southern Israeli towns on Tuesday and people ran for shelter after Palestinian rockets crashed into several homes overnight. The military said the Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted more than 100 projectiles.
Israel responded with dozens of air strikes, hitting buildings overnight that included a Hamas intelligence compound and the studios of Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Television, whose employees had received advance warnings from the military to evacuate.
In aerial attacks on Tuesday, Israel’s military said it took out a rocket-launching squad and fired at several Palestinians infiltrating through the border fence around Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.
In Gaza City, people gathered in front of a large mound of debris that was once a multi-floor structure. It was flanked by five-story buildings still standing after the air strike, their shattered stone facades adding to the tall pile of rubble.
Israeli armoured personnel carriers (APC) are seen in a field in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
WEEKLY VIOLENCE ALONG BORDER
Violence has simmered since Palestinians launched weekly border protests on March 30 to demand the easing of the blockade on Gaza and the right to return to lands lost in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding. Israeli troops have killed more than 220 Palestinians during the confrontations, which have included border breaches.
In fighting over the past two days, Israeli missiles flattened seven buildings, mostly in Gaza City including the TV station. Witnesses said warning missiles, which carry small warheads, were fired first.
Abdallah Abu Habboush, 22, said he was awakened by shouts from neighbors to get out of his residential building after what Israel terms the “tap on the roof” warning. They all gathered in a room on the first floor to wait out the attack.
“Old men who were with us fainted because of the smoke,” he said, adding that he had no idea why the structure was hit. The An Israeli military spokesman said all of the buildings targeted were “owned, operated and used by Hamas”.
In the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, a video shot by a resident showed a bleeding woman, lying in the debris of an apartment and covered by dust, weakly raising her arm, next to the body of the Palestinian man killed in the attack. She was taken to hospital in critical condition.
Hamas, which is branded a terrorist group in the West, took control in Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the small coastal territory.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan)