An informal ceasefire meant to end two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip appeared to be unravelling late Monday, threatening to unleash a new round of violence just a week before Israeli national elections.
Islamic Jihad announced a unilateral ceasefire Monday evening, saying it had completed its “retaliation” for the deaths of three of its members, but threatening to respond to any Israeli “aggression.” Within hours, the Iranian-backed group accused Israel of continuing to attack and resumed rocket fire, setting off air-raid sirens in southern Israel.
“The enemy did not commit itself into stopping its aggression we we resumed based on the fire-for-fire principle,” said Abu Hamza, spokesman of the group’s armed wing.
Residents in Gaza reported Israeli airstrikes late Monday. Israel also announced it was closing its border crossings with Gaza, halting cargo deliveries to the blockaded territory and preventing travelers and workers from exiting. It also said it would not allow Gaza’s fishermen to go out to sea.
The latest round of fighting first erupted early Sunday after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad militant it said was planting explosives along the border. Israel also expanded its retaliation to Syria, where some of the Iranian-backed group’s leaders are based, killing two more Islamic Jihad militants.
There were no reports of civilian casualties on either side.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, locked in the final days of a divisive election campaign, ramped up his rhetoric. He threatening Gaza’s Hamas rulers with a stepped-up operation if the rocket fire continued.
“I’m talking about a war,” he told Israel’s Army Radio station. “I only go to war as a last option, but we have prepared something you can’t even imagine.”
Despite the tough rhetoric, both sides appeared to have an interest in ending the fighting quickly.
For Netanyahu, the violence drew unwanted attention to Israel’s volatile southern border with Gaza, where his government has struggled to halt years of attacks and rocket fire by militant groups. Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, has been exposed in the past few months as a relatively weak and disorganized group — one that acts more as a spoiler capable of undermining ceasefire efforts than a serious military threat to Israel.
In recent months, Israel has worked with United Nations and Egyptian mediators to cement an informal ceasefire with Hamas, the much larger Islamic militant group that has governed Gaza for more than a decade. These “understandings” have eased a painful Israeli blockade that has ravaged Gaza’s economy, in exchange for Hamas guarantees to maintain quiet.
The United Nations’ Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov, a key player in the truce efforts, had tweeted Monday calling for “an IMMEDIATE stop to the firing of rockets that only risks dragging Gaza into another destructive round of hostilities with no end in sight!”
While Hamas has honoured the truce, Islamic Jihad has continued to carry out attacks.
There was pressure on the militants to respond after footage spread on Palestinian social media of an Israeli military bulldozer lifting the lifeless body of the dead militant and dangling it off the front of the vehicle.
Islamic Jihad militants began firing rockets late Sunday, and had launched 80 rockets by the time the ceasefire was announced, according to the Israeli military. It said over 90 per cent of the rockets were intercepted, but one projectile slammed into an empty playground in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage to a large slide.
Schools were closed in Israeli areas adjacent to Gaza, roads shut and restrictions placed on outdoor public gatherings.
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It was the heaviest round of fighting since November, when Israel and Islamic Jihad engaged in a two-day battle after Israel killed one of the group’s top commanders.
The latest Israeli airstrikes targeted only Islamic Jihad positions. But Israel holds Gaza’s Hamas rulers responsible for all fire coming out of the coastal enclave, and could expand its response.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Still, Netanyahu appeared to be reluctant to pick a fight with Hamas so close to next Monday’s election. Hamas is much more powerful than Islamic Jihad, and it has shown itself capable of barraging Israel with rocket fire for weeks at a time.
Hamas, which remained on the sidelines, also has little interest in renewed fighting at a time when it is trying to improve living conditions for the territory it controls.
Netanyahu’s opponents have criticized him for his understandings with the group, accusing him of caving in to violence to keep things quiet.
“Netanyahu, the country is under fire. Get on helping it,” said Netanyahu’s chief rival, former military commander Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition Blue and White Party. “The people of the south deserve better.”
The election will be Israel’s third in under a year, after two inconclusive votes last year.
Netanyahu, locked in a tight race with Gantz, has tried to focus the campaign away from his upcoming trial on corruption charges by presenting himself as an experienced statesman who is best suited to protecting Israel’s security. He appeared to have little interest in prolonged fighting so close to election day.