GAZA CITY (Palestinian Territories) • A ceasefire announced by Hamas largely held yesterday after the most severe exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip since a 2014 war, easing fears of a wider conflict for now.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the blockaded Gaza Strip, said late last Saturday that a ceasefire had been reached with the help of Egypt and others, though Israel declined to comment. The United Nations’ Middle East envoy, Mr Nickolay Mladenov, was in Gaza and “working with all concerned parties to de-escalate the situation”, a UN official said on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli military said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire, militants fired two rockets towards Israel, of which one was intercepted by its Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza. Some hours afterwards, militants fired another two mortar bombs towards Israel, which responded by striking the mortar tube used in the attack, the military said.
In another incident yesterday, an Israeli aircraft fired at what it said were militants launching balloons carrying firebombs over the Gaza border fence. It was not yet clear if there were casualties. Last Saturday saw dozens of Israeli air strikes, killing two Palestinians, while some 200 rockets and mortars were fired from the enclave at Israel.
The army said the strikes targeted Hamas military facilities, including a battalion headquarters, training facilities and weapons storage areas. Four Israelis were wounded when a rocket hit a house in the city of Sderot near the Gaza Strip, the authorities said.
The two Palestinians killed were aged 15 and 16, caught in an Israeli strike on a building in the west of Gaza City, the enclave’s Health Ministry said. Twenty-five people were wounded across Gaza, the ministry said. Hamas said it fired at Israel in defence in response to air strikes, which came after a soldier was wounded by a grenade on the Gaza border.
Israel blamed Hamas for the escalation, pointing to months of protests and clashes along the border that its military argues the Islamist movement is seeking to use as cover for attacks. There have also been hundreds of fires at Israeli farms caused by kites and balloons carrying firebombs from Gaza, leading to political pressure on the government and military to take action against Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas had been hit with “the hardest blow” since a 2014 war and that “we will increase the strength of our attacks as necessary”. At the start of a Cabinet meeting yesterday, he denied what he said were reports that “Israel has agreed to a ceasefire that would allow the continuation of terrorism by incendiary kites and balloons”.
“This is incorrect,” he said. “We are not prepared to accept any attacks against us and we will respond appropriately.” On July 9, Israel closed its only goods crossing with the Gaza Strip in response to the fires. Hamas called the move a “crime against humanity”, with Gaza already suffering from deep poverty and worsening humanitarian conditions.