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Rockets fired at Israel from Gaza hours after Islamic Jihad announces cease-fire

Israel kills top Palestinian militant in Gaza

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — Israel and the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza reached a cease-fire on Thursday to end two days of heavy fighting that killed at least 34 Palestinians and paralyzed parts of Israel. It was only a few hours before the tense halt in fighting was tested by a volley of rockets fire from the Palestinian territory toward southern Israel.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Berim said the Egyptian-brokered deal went into effect at 5:30 a.m. Al-Berim said the cease-fire was based on a list of demands presented by his group late Wednesday, including a halt to Israeli targeted killings of the group's leaders.

An Israeli military spokesman said the fighting in Gaza was "over," confirming the cease-fire Islamic Jihad announced earlier. Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee tweeted Thursday morning that the operation had ended with Israel having targeted 25 Gaza militants, most of them from Islamic Jihad.

Israel rarely acknowledges deals with Gaza militant groups but some restrictions were lifted on residents of the south, despite the continued fire of several rockets. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed in a tweet that at least five rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the new wave of rockets, and it wasn't clear how it might affect the fate of the cease-fire. 

Air raid sirens in southern Israel wailed as soon as the launches were detected.

Palestinian woman looks on as she stands in front of a house destroyed in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian woman stands in front of a house destroyed in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip on November 14, 2019; there was no word on whether the strike preceded a cease-fire reached the same day IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS

This round of fighting broke out early Tuesday after Israel killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militant group who was said to be behind a string of rocket attacks and who Israel said was believed to be planning a cross-border infiltration.

The rare targeted killing by Israel sparked the heaviest fighting with Gaza militants since May. Islamic Jihad fired some 400 rockets toward Israel, while Israel responded with scores of airstrikes.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the policy of targeted killings had "proved itself" to be effective and that it would continue, despite word of the cease-fire.

Israel says it killed Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza

"Everyone who was a top military official, who was set to carry out and was involved in terror or rocket firing against Israel was eliminated," he told Israeli Army Radio. "And we intend to continue with this."

The Reuters news service quoted Katz as telling Army Radio that Israel would hold fire as long as Palestinian militants did. "Quiet will be answered with quiet," Katz said while denying Israel had decided to observe a broader cease-fire.

Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group, which is much larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, stayed out of the fighting, indicating it would be brief.

Palestinian officials reported 34 deaths, including a 7-year-old boy and six members of a single family. At least 16 of the dead were militants.

The rocket fire crippled life across southern Israel as nonstop air-raid sirens canceled schools and forced people to remain 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 military defense system.

Much of Gaza resembled a ghost-town, with almost no vehicles on the roads except for ambulances evacuating the wounded.

Shortly after al-Berim's announcement, at least two rockets were fired out of Gaza, setting off sirens in southern Israel. It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets or whether the launches were intentional or misfires caused by electronic timers.

But the Islamic Jihad said it was committed to ending the fighting, saying the fire was likely because word hadn't spread to all members about the halt to violence.

Israel doesn't usually acknowledge deals with militant groups. But U.N. and Islamic Jihad officials were in touch Wednesday with Egyptian mediators, who typically broker deals to end fighting in Gaza, and Israel did not respond to the rocket launch.

Also, 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 could still be heard buzzing 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.

Iran's footprint

The killing of 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.

As Iran's proxy in Gaza, the group is key to Tehran's strategy of keeping pressure on Israel on all fronts.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israel has also claimed that Iran is using Iraq and far-off Yemen, where Tehran backs Shiite rebels fighting government forces and a Saudi-led coalition, to plan attacks against Israel. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.

Boost for Netanyahu?

The violence came at a touchy time in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two elections ended inconclusively and after 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 months of election campaigning, the long-serving Israeli leader has sought to depict himself as the only leader capable of steering Israel through its myriad security challenges, painting Gantz as weak despite his military bona fides.

With the legal woes hovering, the latest round of violence could help to bolster Netanyahu's image.

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