Palestinians sit amid the rubble of their destroyed house following overnight Israeli missile strikes, in the town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Israel, Islamic Jihad truce appears holding despite rockets

November 14, 2019 - 9:25 am

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s Islamic Jihad militant group appeared to be holding Thursday despite an earlier barrage of rocket fire that briefly disrupted a truce to end two days of intense fighting that killed at least 34 Palestinians, including three women and eight children, and paralyzed parts of Israel.

Before the truce was announced, a pre-dawn Israeli airstrike killed eight members of the same family in Gaza. Among them were five children, the youngest 7 years old.

It was the deadliest single attack since a bruising 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza. Islamic Jihad claimed no link to the family and the Israeli military offered no details on the strike.

Israel hailed the Gaza operation as a victory, defending its policy of targeting militants in their homes despite civilian deaths and vowed to continue the tactic. Islamic Jihad said it had succeeded in getting Israel to agree to a cease-fire based on several demands, including a halt to Israeli targeted killings of the group’s leaders.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Berim said the Egyptian-brokered deal went into effect at 5:30 a.m. An Israeli military spokesman tweeted that the Gaza operation “is over.” Some restrictions were lifted on residents of southern Israel and traffic returned to the streets of the Palestinian coastal territory.

But after hours of calm, a barrage of five rockets blasted out of the territory, setting off air raid sirens in southern Israel and testing the fragile truce. No group claimed responsibility for the new wave of rockets, but Israel did not immediately respond and quiet quickly returned.

The fighting erupted early on Tuesday after Israel killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militant group who Israel said was behind a string of rocket attacks and was planning a cross-border infiltration.

The rare targeted killing by Israel sparked the heaviest fighting with Gaza militants since May. Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, while Israel responded with scores of airstrikes.

However, Gaza’s ruling Hamas stayed out of the latest escalation — an indication it would be brief.

Israel typically does not publicly acknowledge deals with militant groups, and on Thursday officials said the only unwritten agreement was that Israel would hold fire so long as Islamic Jihad did. The military claimed it had killed some 25 militants and struck a tough blow to Islamic Jihad facilities.

Israel’s new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, who has long called for tougher action in Gaza, warned that militants were not safe anywhere.

“A terrorist who tries to harm Israeli citizens will not be able to sleep soundly, not in his home and not in his bed and not in any hiding place,” he said.

Palestinian officials said 34 people were killed in the fighting, including at least 18 militants. They say eight children, including a pair of 7-year-olds, and three women were among the dead.

The Abu Malhous family lost eight members when Israeli fighter jets dropped at least two bombs on their ground floor house in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza. The airstrike flattened the tin-roofed home and pushed it into a large crater, which was littered with clothing, kitchenware and other belongings. Later Thursday, neighbors sifted through the debris as children looked on.

In past wars, Israel has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups for targeting militants’ homes due to the high risk to civilians. Scores of militants’ neighbors and relatives have been killed in such airstrikes.

Neighbors said an Islamic Jihad commander lived in the home that was targeted early Thursday, but he was not there when it was struck. Instead, his brother and seven other family members were killed. None of them were affiliated with the militant group, said the neighbors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset the family.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus had no information about the airstrike, but he defended the attacks on militants’ private homes, saying Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons, making them legitimate targets.

“All of our operations were measured, proportionate and focused only on military assets belonging to the Islamic Jihad,” he said.

The rocket fire crippled life across southern Israel and on Tuesday, also in the country’s heartland in and around Tel Aviv, as nonstop air-raid sirens canceled schools and forced people indoors. At least three people were lightly wounded from shrapnel or shattered glass. Most rockets landed in open areas or were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Israeli military’s Home Front command tweeted that it was lifting restrictions in certain areas but leaving them in place in the areas surrounding Gaza.

In Gaza, cars could be heard back on the streets as the territory appeared to be springing back to life. Israeli military drones still buzzed overhead.

Late Wednesday, Islamic Jihad’s leader, Ziad al-Nakhalah, announced three conditions for an end to the fighting: an end to targeted killings, a halt in Israeli shootings of protesters at weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border and easing a 12-year-old Israeli blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy.

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Israel considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which both seek its destruction, to be terrorist groups.

The killing of Islamic Jihad’s Bahaa Abu el-Atta on Tuesday coincided with a strike in the Syrian capital of Damascus that targeted another Islamic Jihad commander. Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for that attack and the commander was not killed, but the strikes stepped up Israel’s regional conflict with Iran and its proxies.

Israel often strikes Iranian interests in Syria and the fresh fighting looked to awaken Israel's increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region.

Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money. Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has some of its leadership in Beirut and in Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.

The violence came at a touchy time in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two elections ended inconclusively and he failed twice to form a governing coalition.

His main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, is now trying to cobble together a government, but his chances appear slim. If he fails by next week, Israel could be on its way to an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum typically rally behind the government during a military operation, and Netanyahu has briefed Gantz before and during the violence, setting off speculation the conflagration may succeed to push the men toward an agreement.

The escalation also comes ahead of an expected indictment against Netanyahu for a number of corruption allegations.

During the election campaign, the long-serving Israeli leader tried to depict himself as the only leader capable of steering Israel through its myriad security challenges. With the legal woes hovering, the latest round of violence could help to bolster Netanyahu’s image.

___

Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem.

AP Editorial Categories: 
Comments ()