Cease-fire holds after day of intense Israel-Hamas fighting
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military lifted its restrictions along the Gaza border Sunday, indicating it had accepted an Egypt-mediated cease-fire that ended a 24-hour round of fighting with Hamas militants that had threatened to devolve into all-out war.
The military had shut down a popular beach and placed limitations on large gatherings as residents kept mostly close to home on Saturday amid dozens of rockets that were fired from Gaza. But after several hours of calm it said residents could resume their daily routines.
On Saturday, the military carried out its largest wave of airstrikes in Gaza since the 2014 war, hitting several Hamas military compounds and flattening a number of its training camps. Two Palestinian teenagers were killed in an airstrike in Gaza City, while four Israelis were wounded from a rocket that landed on a residential home.
The military said several mortar shells were fired even after Hamas announced the cease-fire as sirens warning of incoming projectiles wailed in Israel overnight again. The military struck the mortar launcher early Sunday but the calm held, with neither side appearing eager to resume hostilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not accept a cease-fire unless it included an end to all militant hostilities, including incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza that have devastated nearby Israeli farmlands and nature reserves.
“The Israeli military has delivered its most punishing blow against Hamas since the 2014 war. I hope they got the message. If not, they will get it later on,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting.
After several balloons drifted into Israel Sunday, the military said it targeted the Hamas squad that had launched them from the northern Gaza Strip.
Hamas police also announced an explosion Sunday at a house in Gaza City that killed a father and son, aged 35 and 13. The explosion appeared to be an accidental blast related to militant stock piles of explosives. Hamas said it would investigate.
Israel said it unleashed Saturday’s barrage in response to weeks of violence along Gaza’s border — including a grenade attack Friday that wounded an officer — as well as sustained Hamas rocket attacks and a campaign of incendiary devices floating over the border.
Hamas responded with more than 200 projectiles toward Israel communities, evoking memories of the three wars the sides have waged over the past decade. Israel said its Iron Dome defense system shot down more than 20 projectiles.
On Sunday evening the military announced that following a “situation assessment” it had reinforced Iron Dome batteries in central Israel and in the south of the country. It added that a small number of reserve army soldiers were called up.
Israel also destroyed several Hamas attack tunnels, as well as factories involved in the production of the incendiary kites and balloons, and a Hamas battalion headquarters in northern Gaza.
“We have no intention of tolerating rockets, kites, drones or anything,” said Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “I hope that Hamas will draw conclusions and if not, they will have to pay a heavy price.”
Two teenagers were killed and several others were wounded when Israel struck an unfinished five-story building near a Hamas security compound and a public park in Gaza City, reducing the structure to rubble. The military said Hamas was using it as a training facility and had dug a tunnel underneath as part of its underground network.
The rare strike in the heart of Gaza City blew out windows at a nearby mosque, an art gallery, government offices, a tech start-up company and dozens of houses, leaving light fixtures and wiring dangling. The Al-Azhar university said its classrooms and the dentistry college lab were also damaged.
Speaking to thousands attending the two teenagers’ funeral, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed to continue Gaza protests and to take revenge for the teens. He also met with the U.N. Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, who urged both sides to maintain calm
“Yesterday we were on the brink of war, and it has taken the concerted efforts of everyone to make sure that we step back from confrontation,” Mladenov said in Gaza. “Everybody needs to take a step back.”
The strike that killed the teenagers unleashed a Hamas’ launch toward the Israeli border town of Sderot, where a rocket hit the Buchris family home.
“We were sitting in the living room and all of a sudden, the aquarium exploded and there was smoke everywhere and glass flew everywhere,” said Aharon Buchris, who was wounded along with his wife and two teenage daughters, as he awaited surgery in hospital.
Israel has been warning Hamas that while it has no interest in exacerbating hostilities, it will not tolerate Gaza militants’ continued efforts to breach the border and its campaign of incendiary attacks on Israeli border communities.
Hamas-led border protests are aimed in part at drawing attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Over 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since protests began on March 30.
With Israel focused on efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military foothold in neighboring Syria, it has been wary of escalating violence in Gaza. Netanyahu has also come under pressure from southern Israeli communities under rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, has been trying to break out of its isolation and spotlight the hardships of the impoverished strip without invoking the full wrath of Israel.
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.