Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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‚Äôs 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)