Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after botched Israeli operation

Palestinians inspect the remains of a vehicle that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Monday after a botched Israeli undercover operation in the Gaza Strip led to fighting that killed a Hamas commander, six other Palestinian militants and an Israeli colonel.

Palestinians fired 17 rockets into southern Israel late on Sunday in response to the incursion and air strikes, which Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, said were intended to cover the retreat of a car used by the Israeli troops.

There were no reports of injuries or damage in Israel, but the military said a lieutenant-colonel, identified only as “M”, had been killed in the raid and another officer wounded.

Hamas said the Israeli actions dealt a blow to Egyptian, Qatari, and U.N. efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the Palestinian group and Israel and ease an Israeli blockade that has deepened economic hardship in Gaza.

But neither side appeared eager to pursue broader conflict.

Hamas received $15 million in Qatari-donated cash via Israel on Friday to pay for civil servants’ salaries and fuel to address Gaza’s energy crisis.

No new rocket launches were reported on Monday morning.

Violence has flared regularly along the Israel-Gaza border since Palestinians began protests there on March 30 to demand rights to land lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its creation.

Israeli gunfire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the start of the demonstrations, which have included breaches of Israel’s border fence.

Hamas said that during Sunday’s fighting, assailants in a passing vehicle opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing one of its local commanders, Nour Baraka.

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Sal

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A pursuit ensued and witnesses said Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles into the area. Palestinian officials said that in addition to Baraka, five other Hamas men and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, Israel’s chief military spokesman said the special forces had not been dispatched to assassinate Hamas commanders, a tactic that led to wider conflict in the past and which has largely been abandoned.

The spokesman, Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, told Army Radio that covert missions were mounted frequently, comments that suggested the Israeli force may have been gathering intelligence.

“During the operation, it found itself in a very complex situation, faced by enemy forces. The (Israeli) force, including Lieutenant-Colonel M., kept its cool, returned fire and evacuated itself together with the (help of the) air force back into Israel,” Manelis said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris, where he attended World War One commemorations with other world leaders. He returned home early on Monday.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel steps up armored deployment on Gaza border

Israeli soldiers speak next to tanks as military armoured vehicles gather in an open area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

YAD MORDECHAI, Israel (Reuters) – Israel ramped up its armored forces along the Gaza border on Thursday in a daylight show of force, a day after a Palestinian rocket destroyed a home in southern Israel.

With the deployment clearly visible from main Israeli roads near the Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials met leaders of the enclave’s ruling Hamas to try to calm tensions.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group quickly denied firing the rockets.

Much may depend on the scope and intensity of a planned Palestinian protest at the border with Israel on Friday, where often violent demonstrations have been held over the past six months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet on Wednesday after the rocket wrecked a home in the city of Beersheba, pledged to take “very strong action” if Palestinian attacks continued.

Israeli leaders have said they will not tolerate rocket attacks or attempts, during the border protests, to breach Israel’s frontier fence with the Palestinian territory of two million people.

A Reuters photographer counted some 60 tanks and armored personnel carriers at a deployment area near the border, calling it the largest number he has seen there since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.

In Gaza, a Palestinian official said the Egyptian delegation was also in contact with Israeli leaders to curb the current tensions.

“The situation is delicate. No one wants a war,” he said.

“Palestinian factions are demanding an end to the Israeli blockade that strangled life and business in Gaza,” the official told Reuters.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Reporting by Amir Cohen, and Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ori Lewis and Richard Balmforth)

Palestinians say one killed, dozens wounded as Israeli troops fire on Gaza protest

Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – One Palestinian was killed and dozens other wounded when Israeli forces opened fire during a weekly demonstration near the Israel-Gaza border on Friday, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.

The Israeli army said soldiers had come under attack by Palestinians who hurled grenades, explosive devices, burning tyres and rocks at them and the border fence.

The soldiers, the military said, responded with “riot dispersal means” and fired “in accordance with standard operating procedures”.

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

It said an Israeli aircraft also carried out strikes in Gaza. A position belonging to the Hamas Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip was hit, according to witnesses.

Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesman said one Palestinian was killed and 54 others were wounded by live fire.

One Israeli soldier was lightly wounded, the army said.

Since Gazans began holding weekly border protests on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 183 Palestinians and wounded thousands. A Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Israel says Hamas deliberately provokes violence at the protests, a charge Hamas denies.

(Reporting by Saleh Salem)

Palestinian ministry rolls back statement that Gaza boy was killed by Israeli gunfire

Palestinian demonstrators gather atop a hill during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

GAZA (Reuters) – A medical source in the Palestinian Health Ministry backed away on Monday from an assertion that an 11-year-old boy killed at a protest on Friday at the border with Israel had been shot by Israeli soldiers.

“The boy died of a head injury,” said the source, who asked not be identified, declining to give specifics and stopping short of attributing the death to Israeli gunfire.

On Friday, Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, said the youth, Shadi Abdel-Al, had been shot dead by Israeli troops.

Two other Palestinians were killed during the weekly protest by Israeli live fire, local medics said on Friday.

An Israeli military spokeswoman asked on Monday about the circumstances of the boy’s death and media reports that he had been killed by a stone thrown during the protest, referred Reuters to comments tweeted by the military’s Arabic-language spokesman.

The spokesman tweeted that there were “increasing indicators from Gaza that question the credibility” of the Palestinian Health Ministry’s original statement about the boy’s death.

“According to the indicators and testimonies, the boy was killed as a result of an injury from stones thrown during the violent riots,” the spokesman wrote.

Since March 30, Palestinians pressing claims against Israel have mounted stone-throwing protests that have included attempts to breach the Israeli border fence with Gaza, run by the Islamist group Hamas.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Stephan Farrell and Jeffrey Heller; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

Gaza ceasefire ends flare-up, Palestinians resume protests

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

GAZA (Reuters) – An Egyptian-brokered truce ended a two-day wave of rocket barrages and air strikes between Israel and Gaza, but the border remained tense as thousands of Gazans gathered for protests in which two Palestinians were killed and scores wounded.

After a quiet night with no rockets falling in Israel or air strikes in Gaza, residents in southern Israel, who had spent much of the past two days in rocket shelters, were told by the military they could return to their daily routines.

In Gaza, crowds of Palestinians resumed protests against Israel. Reuters TV footage showed plumes of smoke blackening the sky at one area of the border after Palestinians set tires ablaze, and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded about 240 others, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israeli military said rioters hurled stones, explosives, and firebombs at troops and the border fence. The soldiers “responded with riot dispersal means and live fire, in accordance with the standard operating procedures”, a spokeswoman said.

A tank also fired at a Hamas outpost, the military said.

Since the weekly protests began on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 159 Palestinians and a Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Still, the broader truce held on Friday after a two-day escalation during which the Hamas militant group fired scores of rockets, including a long-range missile deep into Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza.

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child were killed in the Israeli attacks, as was a Hamas militant. Seven people were wounded by Palestinian rockets and mortars that struck Israel.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a blockade on Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is home to two million Palestinians, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

A senior Egyptian official said Cairo was working to secure a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Hamas, beginning with a ceasefire and later including economic improvements.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch and Cairo newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

Hamas fires rockets, Israel bombs Gaza amid talk of truce

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas site that was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon

GAZA/SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday armed factions in Gaza were prepared to halt a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel if the Israeli military stopped its strikes after two days of cross-border violence.

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, and a militant from the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.

The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel. One was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.

The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of an imminent end to the current fighting.

“Factions of the resistance consider this round of escalation over as far as we are concerned, and the continuation of calm depends on the behavior of the occupation,” the official said, using militant factions’ term for Israel.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the official’s remarks.

The official, at a command center used by armed groups in Gaza, said they had been “responding to crimes” by Israel – a reference to the killing on Tuesday, in disputed circumstances, of two Hamas gunmen.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

The latest fighting has stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio before the Palestinian officials comments that Israel was “not eager for war” but would make no concessions to Hamas.

An Israeli policeman walks next to the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was due to hold a security cabinet meeting later in the day after consultations with security officials.

Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 180 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.

Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck more than 150 facilities belonging to Hamas.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel.”

The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.

Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, the latest in 2014.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Hamas says indirect Gaza truce talks with Israel ‘advanced’

Israeli soldiers walk around on the Israeli side near the border line between Israel and the Gaza Strip July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.N.- and Egyptian-mediated talks on a deal to tamp down tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip are in “advanced stages”, a senior member of the Palestinian enclave’s dominant Islamist Hamas group said on Wednesday.

The remarks were echoed by a top Israeli lawmaker, suggesting a possible breakthrough after four months of confrontations and clashes that stirred mutual threats of war.

Still the border remained tense on Wednesday. The Israel army said militant gunfire struck an engineering vehicle along the frontier, and that in response a tank fired at a Hamas post. No injuries were reported.

Shortly after, air raid sirens went off in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, sending residents running for shelter. At least two rockets fell in the area and one person was hurt, according to emergency services.

Palestinian officials then said Israel carried out an air strike in northern Gaza, causing no injuries.

Gazans launched weekly, sometimes violent, border protests against Israel on March 30, their anger exacerbated by a grinding Israeli-Egyptian blockade and funding cuts by Hamas’s rival, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli army has killed at least 158 Palestinians, while a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier. Israel has lost tracts of forest and farmland to fires set by incendiary kites and helium balloons flown over the frontier. There have also been several, mostly bloodless shelling exchanges.

Neither Hamas nor Israel, which last fought a war in 2014, appears keen on another full-blown conflict. But public demands by either side for a detainee release by the other appear to have been a stumbling block in securing a long-term truce.

“We can say that actions led by the United Nations and Egypt are in advanced stages and we hope it could yield some good from them,” Khalil Al-Hayya, deputy Hamas chief in Gaza, told Al Jazeera television.

“What is required is for calm to be restored along the border between us and the Zionist enemy (Israel).”

“NEW DAY”

Israel has played down prospects for a comprehensive ceasefire, speaking in terms of a more limited quid-pro-quo.

In return for calm in Gaza, Israeli officials said on Sunday they would reopen a commercial border terminal that had been shuttered in response to the fire damage, and expand a Palestinian fishing zone.

Netanyahu called off a trip to Colombia this week to attend to the Gaza truce talks, and was due to convene his decision-making security cabinet on Thursday to discuss the negotiations.

Avi Dichter, the committee of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, struck a cautiously upbeat note on Wednesday. “I very much hope that we are on the brink of a new day on the matter of Gaza,” he told reporters.

Neither the United Nations nor Egypt have publicly detailed their proposals for Gaza, beyond saying they should bring extensive economic relief for its 2 million Palestinians, many of them plagued by unemployment and failing public utilities.

Hayya said foreign donors were collecting “hundreds of millions of dollars” for electricity, water, health and job-creation projects in Gaza, but that these “require stability”.

Israel wants to recover the bodies of two soldiers killed in the Gaza war, and wants freedom for two of its civilians who wandered into the enclave, in exchange for any far-ranging truce deal with Hamas.

For its part, Hamas demands that Israel free Palestinian security prisoners – a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners balk at.

“We want to free our brave prisoners and we have no objection to beginning now,” Hayya said. “Let it be a prisoner swap deal, (Palestinian) prisoners in return for Zionist soldiers.”

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)

Gaza ceasefire largely holding after day-long flareup

A Palestinian woman passes a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire largely held on Sunday along a tense Gaza-Israel border on Sunday following a day of fierce fighting, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defenses in case hostilities resume.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Saturday, killing two teenage boys, and militants fired more than 100 rockets across the border, wounding three people in a southern Israeli town.

The ceasefire, the second between Israel and Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists to be brokered by Egypt this year after a previous day-long flare-up in May, came into force late on Saturday.

“Everyone understands that unless the situation is defused, we will very quickly be back to another confrontation,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov told reporters at his office in Gaza.

Israel’s military said that, after assessing the situation, it was reinforcing its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries in the greater Tel Aviv area and in the south, where thousands of residents spent much of the Jewish Sabbath in shelters.

It also called up a limited amount of reservists to help out its aerial defense command.

Israel said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire militants had fired two rockets across the border, of which one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza.

Later, two mortar bombs were fired towards Israel, which responded by striking the launch tube, the military said.

TENSIONS

Weekly clashes at the Israel-Gaza border have kept tensions at a high for months. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the frontier held every week since March, including a teenager on Friday, Gaza medics said. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the demonstrations, dubbed The Great March of Return, to provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

“Our policy is clear – we hit with great might anyone who harms us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I hope that they (Hamas) have gotten the message. If not, they will yet.”

Netanyahu also instructed the military to keep targeting Palestinian squads that launch incendiary helium balloons and kites into Israeli fields from northern Gaza. Israel’s military fired twice on such groups, wounding three people.

Israel says it has lost at least 7,000 acres (2,830 hectares) of farmland and forests to a recent surge in fires started by Gaza militants using such balloons and kites rigged with flammable material.

Hamas said border demonstrations, at which Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to land lost when Israel was created in 1948, would continue and that the onus was on Israel to show restraint.

“Let the enemy end its aggression first and then the resistance will stop,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a eulogy for Amir al-Namara, 15, and Loay Kheil, 16, who were killed when a half-constructed high rise they were playing in was hit by an Israeli missile.

The Israeli military said the building had been used by Hamas for urban warfare training.

Twelve others, passers-by and visitors of a nearby public garden, were wounded in the attack, one of dozens of Israeli air strikes on the densely populated enclave on Saturday which damaged residential and office buildings, shattered car windows and caused panic among residents.

“He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was just an innocent kid,” said Amir’s grandfather Waleed al-Namara at the boy’s wake. “We want the calm to last, and for them to agree on a solution that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

The surge in violence comes as Palestinian hopes for an independent state have dwindled and peace talks remain stalled. Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of whom depend on foreign aid, has been under Israeli economic sanctions for 12 years.

Separately, a Fatah faction militant and his son were killed in a blast in a building in Gaza on Sunday. Police said the man accidentally set off an old Israeli shell he was trying to dismantle.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)