Friday's IDF fatality was first on Gaza front since 2014

Tense calm in south, but arson kite sparks fire at kibbutz; IDF hits Hamas posts

After killing of IDF officer by Gaza sniper Friday prompts major Israeli raids, ceasefire largely holding; Israeli official says Hamas vowed to halt kite attacks, Hamas denies it

Soldiers battle a fire at Kibbutz Nahal Oz sparked by a kite loaded with an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Soldiers battle a fire at Kibbutz Nahal Oz sparked by a kite loaded with an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

An incendiary device launched from Gaza on Saturday sparked a fire at a southern kibbutz, prompting Israeli reprisal fire at a Hamas post Saturday afternoon, but overall things were relatively calm Saturday after deadly violence a day earlier.

The incendiary device launched from the Hamas-run enclave fell at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, east of northern Gaza. It caused a fire at the kibbutz cowshed and at a storage center; cows were moved out of the cowshed and roamed parts of the kibbutz, as firefighters battled to bring the blaze under control, Army Radio reported.

The Israeli response was the second tank shell strike in the day. Earlier a tank fired at a Hamas observation point east of Gaza City, saying it was retaliation for an attempted border infiltration in northern Gaza. The suspects returned to the enclave, according to the army. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties.

The ceasefire announced overnight Friday-Saturday largely held in place Saturday after a wave of air strikes across the enclave a day earlier, sparked by the death of an Israeli soldier shot by Palestinian snipers at the border. The officer was the first IDF fatality on the Gaza front since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Smoke fills the cowshed at Kibbutz Nahal-Oz on Saturday as firefighters fight a blaze caused by an arson device launched from Gaza on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

Four Gazans — three of them confirmed by Hamas as its members — were killed in Friday’s violence. Thousands attended their funerals in Gaza on Saturday.

Israel did not confirm the deal announced by Gaza’s Islamist rulers, which went into effect around midnight Friday reducing fears of a wider conflict, and officials said Israel would respond as necessary depending on how events unfolded in the coming hours and days.

A senior Israeli diplomatic official told Hebrew-language media that Hamas had vowed to halt airborne arson attacks against Israel going forward. But Hamas sources quoted by Israel Radio on Saturday afternoon denied this.

File: Palestinian protestors fly a kite loaded with an incendiary device towards Israel during a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on June 29, 2018 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The unnamed official claimed “Hamas suffered a serious blow yesterday, and requested a ceasefire via Egypt, while promising to stop the arson terror and terror at the border fence.”

He added that Egypt was serving as a guarantor for Hamas, but noted that “what happens on the ground will determine where things go. If Hamas breaks [the truce] it will pay an even greater price.”

Egypt and the UN reportedly played the central roles in negotiating the ostensible ceasefire. On Friday, the UN’s envoy for Middle East peace, Nickolay Mladenov, implored Israel and Hamas to “step back from the brink” of war.

In a video released on Saturday, the Israeli military indicated that it struck eight targets in three areas in the Gaza Strip including weapons depots, command centers, training centers and observation posts in Zeitoun, Khan Younis and al-Bureij.

A senior Hamas official told AFP Friday that the ceasefire deal involved “the cessation of all forms of military escalation” including Israeli air strikes and Hamas mortars and rockets.

But the Hamas source claimed incendiary balloons and kites, which Palestinians have been floating over the border for months to spark fires inside Israel, were not included in the agreement.

The ongoing kite and balloon attacks have burned thousands of dunams of forests and agricultural land adjacent to the Gaza border in recent months.

Palestinians inspect a military observation post that was hit by an Israeli tank shell east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, July 20, 2018 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

After a security assessment, residents in the Gaza periphery were told they could return to their normal lives on Saturday morning.

“There are no particular restrictions on the Home Front,” the army said.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum tweeted overnight: “With Egyptian and UN efforts, [an agreement] was reached to return to the previous situation of ceasefire between the occupation and Palestinian factions.”

Explosions are seen following Israeli strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on July 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

On Friday, a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier along the border — the first fatality Israel has sustained in the Strip in four years.

Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst close to Hamas, told AFP that the shooting was seen as a reaction to the killing of a number of Hamas fighters by Israeli strikes in recent days. Israel has carried out such strikes on Gazans launching incendiary kites and balloons at southern Israel.

In response Israel unleashed an offensive it says destroyed more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters.

Palestinian relatives react as they arrive at the morgue of the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City where the body of Mohammed Badwan was brought after he was shot dead by Israeli forces during protests along the border east of Gaza City. (AFP PHOTO / ANAS BABA)

Details of the Israeli soldier’s death were withheld for several hours until his family was notified. His name was not immediately published.

The Israeli military said its subsequent attacks “delivered a severe blow to the Hamas’s training array, command and control abilities, weaponry, aerial defense and logistic capabilities along with additional military infrastructure.”

Watch IDF footage of Friday strikes on Gaza

Following the attacks, rocket warning sirens wailed in communities around Gaza. At least two projectiles were launched and intercepted by the Iron Dome system and another fell in an open field, the army said. There were no reports of projectiles falling in Israeli communities or of any injuries.

Israelis living close to the Gaza border were told to stay close to bomb shelters, and not to attend synagogues for Friday evening prayers in larger numbers than could be accommodated in protected rooms should rocket attacks come.

Amit Segev, a father of four from Kibbutz Bar-Am, told Army Radio Saturday that its was very difficult to live in the shadow of the rockets and arson devices from Gaza, and that if Tel Aviv was being hit, Israel’s response would be very different.

He recalled that when the first rockets were fired from Gaza years ago, Israel’s leaders played down their significance, saying they caused little damage. But Hamas gradually improved them “and look where we ended up,” he said, referring to years of Israel-Hamas conflict. “Now they’re saying the same thing about the kites” and other incendiary devices being launched from Gaza that cause fires in the south.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot seen during an emergency meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2018, following widespread Israeli strikes on Hamas targets across Gaza after a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier. (Ministry of Defense/Ariel Hermoni)

Israel’s top leadership convened late into the night Friday at military headquarters to discuss potential actions.

The IDF’s chief spokesman Ronen Manelis did not rule out a major ground offensive, but said the IDF was not looking to enter a full-scale conflict. Nonetheless, the fire on the troops at the border was “the most serious incident” since the 2014 conflict, Manelis said, and the IDF’s Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had spent the years since then ensuring that the army was ready for “whatever response is necessary.”

Reports said Israeli special forces had been stationed near border communities to prevent possible Hamas attacks through attack tunnels dug into Israel.

Hugh Lovatt, an Israel-Palestine fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, told AFP another round of conflict remained highly possible.

“The ceasefire is crucial and shows neither side wants war but it’s only temporary reprieve,” he said.

“Unless it can be consolidated and translated into a more permanent agreement that includes an easing of Israeli restrictions then we will continue to witness ever more frequent flareups.”

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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