As ceasefire takes hold, Islamic Jihad vows new rounds of violence

Terror group spokesperson blames Israel for violence as shaky truce appears to hold and south returns to routine, claims its rocket barrages were coordinated with Hamas

Islamic Jihad terrorists attend a memorial service for one of their number who was killed in clashes with Israel, November 15, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)
Islamic Jihad terrorists attend a memorial service for one of their number who was killed in clashes with Israel, November 15, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

A spokesman for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad vowed to continue fighting against Israel, shortly after a ceasefire went into effect Tuesday ending two days of clashes between Israel and the Gaza-based terror group.

“This isn’t the final round with the occupation,” said Abu Hamza, spokesman for the al-Quds Brigades, the terror group’s armed wing.

“The fire of the struggle over the land of Palestine will burn despite all the conspiracies,” Abu Hamza said in a statement.

Over the course of Sunday and Monday, terrorists in the Strip fired over 90 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel. Some 90 percent of the projectiles heading toward populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, according to the Israel Defense Forces, though one managed to slam into a playground in Sderot, and falling shrapnel caused damage elsewhere. There were no serious injuries on the Israeli side.

The IDF retaliated to the attacks with several rounds of airstrikes against the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as a rare publicly acknowledged attack against the group’s facilities near the Syrian capital Damascus late Sunday night, in which two members of the terrorist organization were killed.

A masked Palestinian checks the damage following overnight Israeli airstrikes on an Islamic Jihad military base in the town of Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

The Israeli strikes targeted the Islamic Jihad, though Israel says it generally holds the Hamas terror group, Gaza’s de facto ruler, responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip.

In his Tuesday statement, Abu Hamza said the group had acted with Hamas’s approval and cooperation.

“All resistance actions — in every place and time and under any circumstance or political scenario — are legitimate, enjoy popular support and are a matter of consensus in the resistance,” he said. “We are proud to give up our blood so that our people and nation can live with honor and dignity.”

He praised the “factions of the resistance and the military wings that were in constant coordination with us, chief among them the al-Qassam Brigades [of Hamas], that were in constant and open contact with the leadership of the al-Quds Brigades.”

Rockets are launched by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip toward Israel, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In his statement Abu Hamza blamed Israel for the recent round of violence.

“The equation according to which a strike is met by a strike, blood is answered with blood, has been established,” he said, adding, “We have transformed the [Israeli] towns near Gaza into hell, into unlivable places.”

Roads reopened and train service resumed in southern Israel on Tuesday morning, though schools remained closed amid fears of renewed rocket attacks.

Palestinian sources linked to the Islamic Jihad told Arabic-language media that a ceasefire went into effect at 11:30 p.m, over an hour after an earlier attempt at calm appeared to unravel.

An Israeli defense official said Jerusalem had received messages from the terror group that it was interested in a ceasefire, but said Israel remained “skeptical.”

No rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza following the announced ceasefire, as of Tuesday night.

Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, February 24, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

As a result, the military reopened a number of roads adjacent to the Gaza Strip that had been closed, and allowed train service to resume between the Ashkelon and Sderot stations.

The local councils of the regions surrounding the Strip also removed their instructions to residents to remain within close proximity of bomb shelters, allowing them to fully return to work, and outdoor gatherings were again permitted.

As a result of the school closures, some 55,000 students stayed home on Tuesday.

On Monday night, Israel also announced it was closing its border crossings with Gaza, halting cargo deliveries to the blockaded territory and preventing travelers and workers from exiting. It also said it would not allow Gaza’s fishermen to go out to sea.

Israeli authorities warned that fighting could erupt again and said the military was remaining at the ready to respond to any attacks.

A boy walks inside a kindergarten’s playground that was hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip in the city of Sderot, Israel, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The ceasefire, if it remains in place, would appear to pull Israel and Gaza back from the brink of all-out conflict.

The fighting was touched off on Sunday morning when Israel killed a member of Islamic Jihad, who the IDF said was planting a bomb along the border, and then sent a tractor into the Strip to retrieve the corpse, in an operation caught on film that angered many in Gaza.

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

On Monday night, the Islamic Jihad said it had completed its “retaliation” for Israel killing three of its members, but threatened to respond to any Israeli “aggression.” Within hours, it accused Israel of continuing to attack and resumed rocket fire, setting off air-raid sirens in southern Israel.

“The enemy did not commit itself to stopping its aggression so we resumed, based on the fire-for-fire principle,” Abu Hamza said at the time.

Throughout the day Monday, Israeli leaders threatened harsher action against Gaza if the fighting continued, saying looming elections slated for March 2 would not dictate its defense policy.

“I’m talking about a war,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Army Radio. “I only go to war as a last resort, but we have prepared something you can’t even imagine.”

Netanyahu also appeared to threaten to kill the heads of Gaza’s terror groups if rocket fire from the Strip continued.

“We will continue to strike until the calm returns. If there isn’t quiet, you’ll be next,” Netanyahu said, during a visit to the city of Ashdod.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the B’sheva group, on February 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The border clashes came amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to seal a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive and incendiary devices into Israel.

The agreement reportedly includes significant measures by Israel to ease its blockade of the Strip, which Jerusalem says is in place to keep terror groups in the Gaza from arming or building up defense infrastructure.

As with an earlier flareup in November following the assassination of a high-level Islamic Jihad commander, Hamas appeared to remain on the sidelines during the latest round of fighting, a likely sign of its desire to reach a long-term truce with Israel that would include measures to end the blockade.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the group seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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