Fresh mortar targets troops on Gaza border as violence persists

Cross-border attack in north of Strip overnight comes as Israeli planes carry out airstrikes in area, despite Hamas reports of Israeli pullout in exchange for ceasefire

Israeli soldiers stand by a tank near the Israel Gaza border, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli soldiers stand by a tank near the Israel Gaza border, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

A mortar round was fired at Israeli troops operating on the border with Gaza overnight, the Israeli military said Thursday morning, as violence on the southern frontier persisted after a day that saw several cross-border exchanges.

The IDF said there were no injuries in the incident, the seventh attack on troops from Gaza since Tuesday.

“A mortar round was fired at #IDF during operational activities near the border area with northern Gaza. No injuries reported,” army spokesman Peter Lerner said in a tweet.

Earlier, the army said it had carried out airstrikes against four Hamas targets in northern Gaza early Thursday, hours after bombing five targets near the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in what it said was a response to mortar fire from the terror group at IDF troops on the border. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The fresh violence overnight came as Israel and Hamas reportedly reached an agreement for IDF troops to pull back from operating inside Gaza to locate and destroy cross-border tunnels being dug by Gazans to attack Israel.

Hamas officials said late Wednesday that Israeli troops operating within the Gaza Strip had begun pulling out of the territory in a bid to restore calm.

It was the first statement indicating that the IDF had in fact been operating beyond the border fence over the past hours, as several exchanges of fire were reported between the sides throughout the day.

It was not clear whether mortar shells and other attack on troops earlier in the day had targeted soldiers on the Israeli or Gazan side of the border.

The IDF would not comment on the matter, saying only that its forces had come under fire “during operational activities adjacent to the security fence.” Earlier reports stated that troops were searching for attack tunnels leading into Israel.

Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk claimed Egypt had mediated an agreement according to which the Israeli military would move out of Gazan territory and Palestinian factions would halt their fire at IDF troops.

Lerner said in a statement that Israel “will continue to operate in order to protect the civilians of Israel from all Hamas terrorist threats above and beneath the ground.”

In a sign that the army expected violence to continue, the IDF issued an order for the second straight day Thursday morning warning farmers to stay out of fields within a kilometer from the Strip, for fear of Gazan sniper fire.

Just before the overnight strikes were launched, Israeli officials warned Hamas to cease firing mortars at its troops on the Gaza border, or face a strong military response.

The officials conveyed the message to the Palestinian Islamist terror group through intermediaries, the Walla news website reported.

“We responded firmly, and we also conveyed stern messages to them,” senior defense officials told Israel’s Ynet news.

Hamas said in a statement that Israel bore “full responsibility” for the escalation in hostilities and its military wing issued a warning to Israel to stop searching for tunnels within the Strip.

Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.

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