A shaky cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad appeared to be taking hold early Tuesday, ending a two-day round of violence that had threatened to disrupt next week's Israeli national elections.
Musab al-Berim, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, said the cease-fire went into effect at 11:30 p.m. Monday, several hours after an earlier truce quickly unraveled. He said Egypt and U.N. mediators had negotiated the new deal, and nearly an hour later things appeared quiet on both sides.
During two days of fighting, Israeli aircraft pounded dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip while Islamic Jihad militants bombarded southern Israel with heavy rocket fire. Israel also expanded its retaliation to Syria, where some of the Iranian-backed group’s leaders are based, killing two more Islamic Jihad militants in an overnight airstrike.
Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is locked in the final days of a divisive election campaign, ramped up his rhetoric. He threatened 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."
Early Monday evening, Islamic Jihad declared a unilateral cease-fire. But Israel continued to strike targets in Gaza. Islamic Jihad accused Israel of continued “aggression” and resumed its rocket fire, drawing further Israeli airstrikes and an Israeli closure of Gaza's key border crossings and fishing zone.
“The enemy did not commit itself into stopping its aggression,” said Abu Hamza, another Islamic Jihad spokesman.
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Then just before midnight, the cease-fire finally appeared to be taking hold.
Despite the tough rhetoric, all sides had an interest in ending the fighting quickly.
For Netanyahu, the violence has drawn unwanted attention to his inability to halt years of attacks and rocket fire by Gaza militants. Hamas, while bitter enemies with Israel, is nonetheless more interested in easing a crippling Israeli blockade than fighting another war. Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, has been exposed in the past few months as a relatively weak and disorganized group — acting more as a spoiler to diplomatic efforts than a serious military threat to Israel.
In recent months, Israel has worked with U.N. and Egyptian mediators to cement a broader informal agreement with Hamas, the much larger Islamic militant group that has governed Gaza for more than a decade. These “understandings” have eased the painful Israeli blockade in exchange for Hamas guarantees to maintain quiet. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
While Hamas has largely honored its truce obligations, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad has continued to carry out attacks. The latest round of fighting erupted early Sunday after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad militant it said was planting explosives along the border.
An Israeli military bulldozer pushed into Gaza to retrieve his body. Footage of the bulldozer lifting the lifeless body and dangling it off the front of the vehicle quickly spread on Palestinian social media, drawing angry comments and putting pressure on the militants to respond.
Islamic Jihad militants began firing rockets late Sunday, and had launched 80 rockets by the time the cease-fire was announced, according to the Israeli military. The military said over 90% of the rockets were intercepted. One projectile slammed into an empty playground in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage to a jungle gym.
Schools were closed in Israeli areas adjacent to Gaza, roads shut and restrictions placed on outdoor public gatherings. The Israeli military said the restrictions would remain in effect Tuesday.
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.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the Islamic militant group overran 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 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. Ongoing violence close to election day could disrupt the vote and embarrass Netanyahu.
Tamar Hermann, an expert on Israeli public opinion at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said that after so many previous rounds of fighting, she did not expect the latest violence to have an impact on voters.
“It’s expected and people are used to it, and resilience is not being eroded because of such ‘normal events,’” she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman reported this story in Jerusalem and AP writer Fares Akram reported from Amman, Jordan.