Israeli tanks struck two Hamas posts in the Gaza Strip Friday evening after a grenade was hurled at troops and amid intense violence during mass riots in several locations along the border.
The strike came as Hadashot TV news reported that Israel is denying it agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas that stopped intense Gaza rocket fire into Israeli and IDF response attacks Wednesday and Thursday.
Around 9,000 Palestinians participated Friday in violent weekly border protests. Some protesters rioted near the fence, threw makeshift bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and burned tires to create a smokescreen. In one incident a grenade was thrown at Israeli troops, but caused no casualties. Several attempts were made to breach the security fence.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported that two Palestinians were killed in the riots: 25-year-old medic Abdullah al-Qatati and 55-year-old protester Ali al-Alul. It said over 300 people were hurt, of which dozens were shot by Israeli troops.
Some rioters flew incendiary kites and balloons into Israel. Israeli officials said at least nine fires had broken out in Israeli territory since the morning due to airborne arson attacks.
Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza and seeks to destroy Israel, had earlier said the so-called “March of Return” border demonstrations would continue unimpeded, despite its announcement of a cessation of hostilities with Israel the night before.
A senior Israeli diplomatic official insisted to Hadashot that Hamas’s announcement that Jerusalem had agreed to a truce was a lie. A senior defense official backed up the claim, and added that the army did not see the confrontation as over.
The implication was that Israel had ceased its reprisal attacks in the Strip because Hamas had halted rocket attacks on Israeli communities, but did not see itself obligated to a truce.
Hamas’s announcement of a truce late Thursday came after a 12-hour lull in fighting, following two days that saw the heaviest exchange of Palestinian rocket fire and reprisal Israeli airstrikes since the 2014 Gaza war.
Hamas said a ceasefire had been reached “on the basis of mutual calm” and went into effect at midnight on Thursday. It said the deal was mediated by Egypt and other regional players. Israel denied there was a truce, but a senior Israeli official told Israel Radio that “quiet would be met with quiet.” There were no instances of violence reported along the border overnight Thursday-Friday.
On Friday evening, the Israeli air force said it had completed deployment of Iron Dome missile defense batteries in central Israel, apparently preparing for the possibility of further escalation.
Earlier on Friday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri celebrated Hamas’s supposed achievements during the latest flare-up of conflict, saying it “proves Israel can be defeated.”
For the past four months there have been near-weekly violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Another Hamas spokesman, Hazem Qassim, tweeted that demonstrators would continue to “break the siege” on the Gaza Strip.
“Every time the Israeli killing machine attempts to break our people’s will to continue its struggle and marches, it fails to do so,” he wrote. “Today our people will head to the ‘Marches of Return’ to challenge the Israeli war machine.”
“Our Palestinian people has a long-lasting, struggling soul,” the Hamas spokesperson wrote. “It will continue its resistance in all of its forms until it gains its freedom, independence and right to a dignified life.”
Over the past four months the “March of Return” protests have led to deadly clashes which saw Israeli security forces facing gunfire, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and efforts — sometimes successful — to damage or cross the border fence.
At least 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began, the Hamas ministry says. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.
One Israeli soldier, Aviv Levi, was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper at the fence last month.
In addition to the border clashes, southern Israel has experienced hundreds of fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons flown over the border from Gaza. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.