Calm returns to Gaza-Israel border — for now


GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — Fresh border protests on Friday evening could test the return of calm to Gaza and neighboring areas of Israel after a deadly flare-up between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military.

Palestinian political sources said agreement had been reached to end all rocket fire into Israel and air strikes on the Gaza Strip from around midnight (2100 GMT) on Thursday.

There was no Israeli confirmation but there were no fresh strikes overnight.

Thursday had seen extensive Israeli raids in retaliation for the launching of more than 180 rockets and mortar rounds by Gaza’s rulers Hamas and its allies on Wednesday night.

Three Palestinians were killed in the Israeli strikes, including a mother and her 18-month-old daughter, while seven Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rocket fire as hundreds took refuge in bomb shelters.

It was one of the most serious flare-ups since the 2014 Gaza war and followed months of escalating tensions.

Late on Thursday, an Israeli air raid flattened a five-story building which hosted a cultural center in Gaza City but which the army said was used by Hamas security forces.

The Israeli security cabinet and the Hamas leadership met separately on Thursday, with the truce offer brokered by Egypt and the United Nations on the table.

Neither Israel nor Hamas officially confirmed any truce had gone into effect, although that has also been the case with previous informal arrangements.

It would be the third such truce in a month.

Reserve General Doron Almog, former head of Israel’s southern command which deals with Gaza, told army radio on Friday morning that the next 24 hours would be crucial.

“We are closer to an arrangement than we have been in the past because Hamas’ interest in a deal is greater than its wish for escalation,” he said.

For Israel, the response to the Hamas rockets is politically problematic for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Friday opinion poll published by Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv found that 64 percent of respondents, both Jews and Arabs, were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s policy towards Hamas, with only 29 percent supportive.

The survey polled 512 people and had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

Maariv commentator Ben Caspit wrote that during the security cabinet meeting on Thursday Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was a lone voice in support of a new war in Gaza.

“He was the only one who demanded to launch a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu was opposed. The (Israeli army) also didn’t recommend it,” he said.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.

Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the “increasingly frequent cycles of escalation and de-escalation” were similar to events before the previous wars.

“Unlike the run-up to past wars, there is already a sustained diplomatic push to hammer out a ceasefire,” he said, pointing to Egyptian and UN efforts and adding that neither Israel nor Hamas seem to desire a full-blown a conflict.

“Yet their ability to avoid renewed war is becoming increasingly constrained with each cycle of violence.”

Palestinian protesters were expected to gather along the Israeli border on Friday evening, as they have every week since late March.

“Despite the aggression on the Gaza Strip, our Palestinian people will continue our march of return and breaking the blockade until it achieves its goals,” said Hamas spokesman Hassem Qassem.

The protests are calling for an end to the decade-long Israeli blockade of Gaza and the return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes inside Israel, which they fled or were expelled from during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to isolate Hamas although critics say it amounts to collective punishment of two million people.

It says any significant return of refugees would mean the end of it as a Jewish state.

At least 165 Palestinians have been killed since protests began on March 30.

Most were killed by Israeli fire during the protests but others died in air strikes.

One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. — AFP