Israel and Palestinians trade fire on Gaza border amid cease-fire talk

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired more rockets and mortars into Israel Wednesday morning, and Israeli jets retaliated by striking some 25 targets belonging to Hamas even as talk of a cease-fire surfaced.

The restless night, with consistent rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli communities, followed a sharp escalation Tuesday as Palestinian militants in the besieged coastal enclave fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into Israel.

The flare-up is the biggest since Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that rules Gaza, fought a 50-day war in 2014.

By Wednesday morning, however, there was some indication of a cease-fire between the sides amid several hours of quiet, though it was unclear if it would hold.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the sites targeted by fighter jets overnight included sheds used to store drones, a rocket-manufacturing workshop, advanced naval weaponry, military compounds, training facilities and a munitions manufacturing site.

“The army views the terror activity carried out by the Hamas terror organization with great severity, and will continue to operate in a powerful and determined manner. The army is prepared to carry out its missions as necessary, using the variety of tools at its disposal,” the military said.

Israeli authorities reported that rockets had caused some damage to communities near the Gaza border, including a direct hit on a residential home and another in the southern Israeli town of Netivot. In the initial barrage on Tuesday morning, a rocket hit a kindergarten, although no children were inside at the time. Local hospitals also reported several light injuries, mainly caused by shrapnel, and one Israeli soldier was in moderate condition.

On Tuesday, released a joint statement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group taking responsibility for the attacks, though by early Wednesday the groups said an agreement had been reached to return to the 2014 cease-fire understanding.

“There was a lot of mediation in the past hours,” Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said in a statement. He said the factions, including Islamic Jihad, would agree to the cease-fire as long as Israel did the same.

Israeli leaders would not immediately confirm that an agreement had been reached, although local media reported that Israel had told Hamas in a message that if the rockets stopped, the airstrikes would, too.

There has been widespread speculation in Israel and Gaza of discussions on a wider peace agreement between the two sides, as tensions have soared in the region over the past few months.

“This latest escalation was actually initiated by the Islamic Jihad and not Hamas, partly because there has been progress in reaching an understanding between Hamas and Israel,” said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former deputy director general at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

He said he believed that negotiations have taken place in recent weeks between the two sides, facilitated by Egypt and Qatar.

“Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a pure Iranian proxy and a very militant organization. Unlike Hamas, they do not have any responsibility to the civilians in Gaza,” he said. “They do not want to see any progress to be made between Hamas and Israel because it works against their ideology.”

Michael said Hamas was in a difficult position following weekly mass demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border fence. Israeli forces have killed more than 100 people in those protests, including 60 in one day on May 14.

Israel unilaterally withdrew its settlements and military presence from Gaza in 2005. But after Hamas wrested power over the strip more than a decade ago, Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on the enclave. Egypt has also kept its crossing into Gaza closed for much of the past 10 years.

A growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza has pushed its residents to start protesting the untenable situation. In late March, thousands began weekly protests demanding both a right to return to land that is now inside Israel and a solution to the crisis facing more than 2 million residents.

“They sacrificed too much and achieved very little,” said Michael. “They’ve been pressured by the Egyptians and their own civilians to reach a long cease-fire with Israel.”

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, chalked up the renewal of hostilities to dissatisfaction among Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the current situation, which has included continued Israeli shelling.

“Even during the protests there was shelling, and they were peaceful,” he said, warning that the situation could further deteriorate. “There has still been no declaration of war, but the possibility exists.”

Abu Saada said containment is possible if Egypt and the United Nations step in.

The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, urged calm on both sides in a statement released Tuesday.

“Such attacks are unacceptable and undermine the serious efforts by the international community to improve the situation in Gaza,” he said.

Itamar Yaar, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said it was unlikely that the latest escalation would lead to another war, mainly because neither side is interested in such a confrontation. He added that “of course, things could change.”

“I think that the security establishment has given political leaders enough information for all to realize that getting rid of Hamas means reoccupying Gaza. I don’t think serious people in Israel want to reoccupy Gaza,” said Yaar.

In southern Israel, residents spent much of Tuesday and overnight Wednesday in bomb shelters during what they said was the biggest round of rocket fire since the 2014 summer war.

“This is something we cannot tolerate,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman, who briefed journalists Tuesday. “Hamas is turning the fence into an active combat zone, and we cannot tolerate attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets.”

Among the targets hit by Israel in Gaza on Tuesday, he said, was a tunnel built to attack Israel. Conricus said the tunnel was unusual in that it snaked under Gaza’s southern border into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and then made a U-turn back into Israel. He said it was the 10th tunnel discovered and destroyed by Israel since October.

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