A fragile ceasefire took effect at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, ending more than three days of intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group in the Gaza Strip, after a deal was brokered by Egypt and confirmed by both sides.
However, heavy rocket fire from Gaza targeting Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheba and other local communities continued until minutes before the deadline, and some barrages were fired as late as 20 minutes after the ceasefire took effect. It wasn’t immediately clear if this meant the truce was broken and that the fighting would continue, since previous Israeli operations in the Strip similarly ended with ceasefires that saw some trades of fire after it took effect.
The Israel Defense Forces took no chances, announcing that despite the ceasefire, the restrictions on gatherings and outdoor activities in areas threatened by the rockets were remaining in place and would be reevaluated in the morning.
“The situation is still very fragile, and I urge all parties to observe the ceasefire,” UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said in a statement.
Earlier unconfirmed reports had said a ceasefire had been agreed on for 8 p.m., but that deadline came and went without any announcement or holding of fire.
The Cairo-mediated ceasefire was said to have included an Egyptian promise to work toward the release of several high-profile PIJ members in Israeli custody, though it was unclear what this meant in practice.
As part of the ceasefire, Egypt agreed to work to ensure the release of Khalil al-Awawda, a PIJ member who is hunger-striking in protest of his detention by Israel without any charges, a senior Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel. The diplomat said Egypt would also work to release PIJ’s West Bank leader Bassam al-Saadi, who was arrested last week in a move believed to have sparked the round of violence in Gaza. The diplomat acknowledged that Saadi’s immediate release would be more difficult to achieve.
The diplomat criticized the Israeli policy of administrative detention, which allows it to hold suspects practically indefinitely without charge.
The Shin Bet has said that in recent months, Saadi “worked even harder to restore PIJ activities, and was behind the creation of a significant military force for the organization in [the northern West Bank] in general and in Jenin in particular.”
“His presence was a significant factor in the radicalization of the organization’s operatives in the field,” the Shin Bet said.
Shortly after the ceasefire took effect, Prime Minister Yair Lapid wrapped up a meeting at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv with defense brass and other top officials, his office said. Lapid was given an overview of the operation over the previous 24 hours and assessments of the defense and civilian picture over the next few days.
Lapid’s office thanked “Egypt for its efforts” as it agreed to the truce, but said that “if the ceasefire is violated,” Israel “maintains the right to respond strongly.”
Earlier Sunday, Lapid told municipal leaders of southern towns that Israel had achieved its goals in the round of fighting, having eliminated key figures in Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s top command.
The IDF says that in the first two days of the operation, it eliminated the PIJ’s military leaders in northern and southern Gaza, along with southern Gaza’s deputy head and the commander of the terror group’s Rafah Brigade. It also killed the head of the group’s anti-tank missile array.
According to Channel 12, during a meeting of the security cabinet on Saturday evening, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar advised ministers to start wrapping up the operation before an “accident or mistake” by the military complicates the situation. The report, which cited three unnamed sources who were in the room, said most ministers agreed with this assessment.
The Gaza operation was launched after several days of closures and lockdowns in Israeli communities near the Strip due to the alert of an imminent attack, with the PIJ seeking to avenge the August 1 arrest of its West Bank leader, Saadi.
Israeli leaders and military officials said the operation was started because Islamic Jihad had refused to back down from its plans to attack Israeli targets close to the border.
As of Sunday evening — several hours before the ceasefire — the IDF said that PIJ had launched 935 rockets toward Israel since Friday. Of those, 160 fell short, in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest data, and around 300 were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. Most others fell in open areas, but there were a few sporadic reports of impacts near homes or industrial buildings.
One man was lightly injured Sunday evening by a rocket that hit an industrial zone in Ashkelon. He was taken to a hospital for treatment. Southern towns were bombarded with volleys of rockets throughout Sunday, with local authorities saying there were power outages in some towns due to another rocket hitting electrical lines in the area.
Several of the rockets reached as far as Tel Aviv and towns around Jerusalem. The Defense Ministry said that three mortars also hit the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza. The terminal roof was damaged as a result of a fire, and shrapnel fell into the entrance hall, the ministry said. No one was hurt, as the crossing serving Palestinians crossing into Israel has been shuttered for days.
Three Israelis were wounded by shrapnel, and others were forced to shelter from barrages of rockets fired from Gaza.
Since Friday, Israel has carried out heavy aerial and artillery bombardment of Islamic Jihad positions in Gaza. The Gaza Health Ministry, run by Hamas, said that at least 44 Palestinians had been killed, including 15 children, and 360 people had been wounded since Friday.
Israel said many of the dead are PIJ terrorists. The IDF presented video evidence indicating that seven people killed in Jabaliya on Saturday night, including four children — in what Palestinian media claimed was an Israeli strike — were in fact killed by a failed PIJ rocket that landed inside the Strip.
Around 8 p.m. on Sunday, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said that five more people, including children, had been killed in Gaza. Military sources told Hebrew media the deaths may have been caused by yet another PIJ rocket misfire, though it did not have immediate confirmation of this.
Emanuel Fabian and AFP contributed to this report.