Ceasefire between Israel and militants in Gaza appears to hold

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A fragile ceasefire between Israeli forces and militants in the Gaza Strip appeared to be holding after a five-day clash that killed 33 Palestinians and two people in Israel.

In an early test for the truce, Palestinian militants fired a rocket into southern Israel on Sunday afternoon. Palestinian media said the launch was caused by a technical error as militants were trying to deactivate the rocket.

Israel responded with tank fire on what it said were two military posts belonging to Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group. Hamas stayed out of the recent round of fighting, but Israel says it holds the group responsible for fire coming out of the territory.

The latest round of Gaza fighting was sparked on Tuesday when Israeli jets killed three top commanders from the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to earlier rocket launches from Gaza.

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Palestinians celebrate the announcement of a ceasefire (Adel Hana/AP)

While the calm appeared to bring a sense of relief to Gaza’s two million people and hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had been largely confined to bomb shelters in recent days, the agreement did nothing to address the underlying issues that have fuelled numerous rounds of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip over the years.

In Gaza, residents surveyed the latest damage caused to their surroundings, with gaping holes left in the apartments serving as what Israel said were hideouts for the six senior Islamic Jihad members killed during this round.

Gaza’s main cargo crossing with Israel reopened on Sunday after warnings that keeping it closed would force Gaza’s sole power plant to shut down, deepening a power crisis.

Israel was gradually lifting restrictions on residents in southern Israel, which had borne the brunt of the rocket fire.

Israeli officials expressed satisfaction with the latest battle, having killed at least six members of Islamic Jihad’s top brass in what it says were pinpointed strikes based on solid intelligence.

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Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system fires interceptors at rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the targeted attacks on the militants’ hideouts would reverberate around the region.

“Israel’s enemies in Gaza and much farther than Gaza know that even if they try to hide, we are able and prepared to reach them at any time,” he told a meeting of his Cabinet.

Israel has faced criticism in the past from rights groups over the civilian casualties in its bombardments in Gaza. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid harming civilians in its strikes and says militants operate from within the territory’s densely populated areas to fire rockets indiscriminately at Israeli communities.

Throughout the fighting, Israel’s repeated air strikes targeting Islamic Jihad and its command centres and rocket-launching sites showed no signs of stopping the rocket fire, prompting Islamic Jihad to declare victory and sending cheering Palestinians out into the streets late Saturday.

The Israeli military reported over 1,400 launches throughout the fighting, with some rockets reaching as far as the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas.

Palestinians inspect the site of an airstrike that the Israeli military said targeted the house of an Islamic Jihad member in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect the site of an airstrike that the Israeli military said targeted the house of an Islamic Jihad member in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip (Fatima Shbair/AP)

An 80-year-old woman and a Palestinian labourer who was working inside Israel were killed by rocket fire. A Palestinian human rights group said three people, including two children, were killed in Gaza by errant rockets.

It was the latest in a long series of battles between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the seaside territory in 2007.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars, and there have been numerous smaller flare-ups as well.

The more powerful Hamas has praised Islamic Jihad’s strikes but remained on the sidelines during the latest round of fighting, limiting the scope of the conflict.

As the de facto government held responsible for the abysmal conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Hamas has recently tried to keep a lid on its conflict with Israel.

Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, a more ideological and unruly militant group wedded to violence, has taken the lead in the past few rounds of fighting with Israel.

An Israeli family sit in a bomb shelter at an apartment building in the southern city of Ashdod
An Israeli family sit in a bomb shelter at an apartment building in the southern city of Ashdod (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

The Gaza violence came after more than a year of fighting in the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli military has been staging near-nightly arrest raids and Palestinians have carried out repeated attacks.

Tensions could once again soar this week when nationalist Israelis hold an annual march through a sensitive area of Jerusalem’s Old City, which the Palestinians view as provocative.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future state.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but Hamas subsequently overran the territory and expelled forces loyal to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza in what Israel says is a policy aimed at preventing Hamas from arming.

The Palestinians and international rights groups say the policy, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, amounts to collective punishment.

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