March 26, 2019 / 5:57 AM / 5 months ago

Israel-Hamas cross-border fighting renews after lull

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza into Israel on Tuesday, drawing retaliatory air strikes and breaking a day-long lull in cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas that could impact an Israeli election two weeks away.

The biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation in months, which began on Monday with the longest-range Palestinian rocket attack to cause casualties in Israel in five years, had eased after Egyptian mediation.

But even if the crisis subsides, it could shadow the impending Israeli election on April 9 in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough security platform.

In the wake of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, Israel said it reserved the right to strike again and kept its troops and tanks massed at the Gaza frontier.

The border was mostly quiet on Tuesday and the military lifted its security restrictions in the area. But after darkness fell, at least two rockets launched from Gaza triggered sirens on the Israeli side of the border, the military said.

There were no reports of casualties or damage.

In response, the Israeli military said its aircraft struck several targets, including a military compound and a weapons-manufacturing facility belonging to the Hamas militant group, which controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

The exchange was less intense than Monday’s fighting. Israel responded to the initial rocket attack on Monday with a wave of strikes on Hamas targets and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel.

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday’s initial attack that hit the Israeli village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza, and five Palestinians were wounded by the retaliatory Israeli strikes.

Netanyahu, who cut short a visit to the United States to deal with the crisis, said Israel may take further action. The military said that after consultations with Netanyahu, it was bolstering its troops in the area and calling up some reserves.

“There is no ceasefire agreement, fighting could start up again at any moment,” a senior Israeli official said.

“We are prepared to do a lot more. We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state,” Netanyahu said in a satellite address delivered from Tel Aviv to the pro-Israel U.S. lobby group AIPAC in Washington.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group, which also took part in the fighting, said Egypt had brokered a truce.

Palestinian policemen loyal to Hamas stand guard at the site of a Hamas-run insurance office after it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

As in past escalations that ended with Egyptian mediation, Israel denied it had agreed to a ceasefire with groups it views as terrorists.

“Netanyahu is trying to portray himself as a hero to his people, therefore he publicly denies the understanding reached with the Egyptians,” Islamic Jihad official Khader Habib said. “Resistance factions are committed to calm as long as the enemy abides by it.”

Egypt was expected to pursue further truce talks on Wednesday, said a Palestinian official involved in the efforts.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with Egypt to secure a ceasefire. “A fragile calm seems to have taken hold,” he said.

Mladenov condemned indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas toward Israel as provocative and urged restraint by all parties.

‘WE DON’T WANT WAR’

The escalation was the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2008 and 2014 and have come to the brink of all-out conflict several times since.

In the 2014 Gaza war, more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in seven weeks of fighting. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel were killed.

Security is a major issue as Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations that he denies, faces his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

Netanyahu says he has kept Israelis safe with a tough stance towards the Palestinians that could be weakened if he leaves office. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled for five years.

In Washington, Netanyahu met U.S. President Donald Trump, who reversed decades of U.S. policy to sign a proclamation recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981.

A senior Israeli official said Trump’s move was proof Israel could retain land captured in a “defensive war”, an apparent suggestion of a permanent hold over other areas captured in 1967, such as East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

After the rocket strike on Mishmeret, retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza lit up the night sky and explosions rocked the densely populated coastal enclave, destroying targets that included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Slideshow (14 Images)

“We don’t want war, but if Israel wants it then what should we do? We ask our factions to respond,” said Mohammad Sayed, 40. “But we hope Egypt reaches a deal to end this.”

Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, mostly descendants of people who fled or were driven from homes in Israel on its founding in 1948. Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war but pulled out its troops in 2005. Hamas took control two years later, and Israel and Egypt have since maintained a security blockade that has brought Gaza’s economy to a state of collapse.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Maayan Lubell, Ran Tzabari and Ari Rabinovitch; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Mark Heinrich

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