Hamas says Gaza cease-fire reached with Israel
JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza's Hamas rulers said late Thursday that a truce had been reached with Israel, ending an intense two-day burst of violence that had pushed the region closer to war. But the deal did not appear to address the deeper issues that have prevented the bitter enemies from reaching a longer cease-fire arrangement.
Hamas' Al Aqsa TV channel reported late Thursday that the Egyptian-brokered deal has taken hold "on the basis of mutual calm." It said the deal was mediated by Egypt and other unidentified regional players.
A senior Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the agreement merely ended the latest round of violence, in which Gaza militants fired some 200 rockets at Israel and the Israeli military carried out a similar number of airstrikes in Gaza. He said Egypt, which often serves as a mediator between the sides, would continue the more difficult task of brokering a long-term cease-fire.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, denied a deal had been reached. But early Friday, the situation in Gaza appeared quiet.
The Hamas announcement came shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Security Cabinet ordered the army to take unspecified "strong action" against Gaza militants as the military reinforced units along the border.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. In this week's fighting, the Palestinian Health Ministry said three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter and a Hamas militant, were killed in separate airstrikes. Israeli officials said seven people were wounded by rocket or mortar fire on the Israeli side.
At times, Thursday's fighting resembled the 2014 war. In Israel, air raid sirens warning of incoming rocket fire wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, canceling outdoor summer cultural events and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.
A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.
Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike flattened the five-story cultural center in the Shati refugee camp, a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City. The airstrike set off a powerful explosion and sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air, causing crowds to scream in panic. Medical officials said at least seven bystanders were wounded.
The building is home to a popular theater and exhibits plays and other shows on a daily basis. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.
"The deliberate targeting of a cultural center with airstrikes and destruction ... is a barbaric act," said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was "an Israeli attempt to sabotage" the Egyptian cease-fire efforts.
The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. Hamas' Interior Ministry, including its secret police, has offices in an adjacent site, but those offices were not hit.
Despite the animosity, the enemies have signaled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war. Reaching a deal, however, will likely require major concession on both sides.
Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza's economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.
Israel is believed to be offering an easing, but not an end, to the blockade.
Gaza's Health Ministry identified those killed in the airstrikes as 23-year-old Enas Khamash and her daughter Bayan, as well as a Hamas fighter, Ali Ghandour.
Kamal Khamash, the woman's brother-in-law, said the family was asleep when the projectile hit the house, and that her husband had been critically wounded. "This is a blatant crime and Israel is responsible for it," he said.
In southern Israel, two Thai laborers were among the seven wounded, and rockets damaged buildings in the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. The military said it intercepted some 30 rockets, while most of the others landed in open areas.
At the United Nations, Israel's ambassador, Danny Danon, urged the secretary-general and U.N. Security Council to condemn Hamas militants for what he called "the unprovoked terrorist attack" on southern Israel.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said U.S. officials were concerned by the situation in Gaza.
"Overall, we condemn the launching of missile attacks into Israel, and call for an end to the destructive violence. We've seen reports that 180 or so rocket attacks have taken place, shot from Gaza into Israel, and we fully support Israel's right to defend itself, and to take actions to prevent provocations of that nature," Nauert said.
Tension along the Israel-Gaza border has escalated since late March, when Hamas launched what have become regular mass protests along Israel's perimeter fence with Gaza. The protests have been aimed in part at trying to break the blockade.
Israel and Hamas have engaged in several bouts of fighting over the past month. The latest round erupted Tuesday, when the Israeli military struck a Hamas military post in Gaza after it said militants fired on Israeli troops on the border. Hamas said two of its fighters were killed after taking part in a gunfire parade inside a militant camp.
Hamas officials said the group waited a day to retaliate until a group of senior leaders visiting from abroad had left the territory. The delegation was in Gaza to discuss the cease-fire efforts with local leaders.
Over the past four months, 163 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including at least 120 protesters, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and a local rights group. An Israeli soldier was killed by a Gaza sniper during this period.
Israel says it has been defending its sovereign border against infiltration attempts by Hamas. But it has come under heavy international criticism for its frequent use of force against unarmed protesters.
Associated Press writers Mohammad Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Fares Akram in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.