Hamas sources said Saturday that Israel was demanding the terror group renew talks on returning the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers in exchange for quiet in the Gaza Strip.
The sources told the Arabic 21 news site that Hamas had refused the demand, according to a report by Channel 13 news.
Hamas is believed to be holding the remains of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies were captured by the terror group when they were killed in the Strip during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
The terror group also holds captive Israeli civilians Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.
The report added that UN envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov was working to prevent further deterioration in the situation between Israel and Hamas.
Mladenov reportedly conveyed a message from Hamas to Israel that the terror group placed full responsibility for any future escalation on Jerusalem, saying that it was not fulfilling its part of the unofficial ceasefire agreement. Mladenov has told Hamas that Israel is interested in maintaining quiet.
Meanwhile, the Qatari envoy who was supposed to enter the Strip with a cash delivery on Saturday was delayed by Israel, Palestinian sources told the Al Quds newspaper, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
Israeli officials had delayed the envoy in order to discuss several subjects related to the unofficial ceasefire agreement. The delegate was supposed to meet in Gaza with Hamas leadership and update it on the developments in the agreement.
Saturday’s developments came after a fresh surge in violence, including two nights of rocket attacks and retaliatory air force strikes, and a wave of arson balloons sent into Israel.
Several thousand Palestinians gathered along the border for weekly protests Friday, with several hundred taking part in violent riots. Rioters threw explosive devices and rocks at forces and also tried to storm the fence in one place.
Troops responded with tear gas and live fire in some cases. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 46 people were wounded.
Arson balloons sparked at least seven blazes, including two large ones near Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Another fire raged in the Be’eri nature reserve.
Firefighting teams and local residents managed to extinguish them, the fire service said.
Israeli Air Force jets carried out multiple airstrikes in the Strip early Friday, hours after a rocket hit a religious school in southern Israel, causing damage but no injuries. The military said in a statement that fighter jets and other aircraft attacked “several terror targets, including terror infrastructure in military compounds.”
The rocket, which did not explode, struck the outer face of the yeshiva in Sderot, sending debris onto the sidewalk. A number of tempered-glass windows were also broken. Most students had gone home for the weekend, but several people were still inside the school at the time.
On early Thursday morning, a rocket launched from Gaza at the southern community of Nirim was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
In light of the increased tensions, the Israel Defense Forces on Friday increased the deployment of its Iron Dome missile defense batteries in southern Israel.
The rocket attacks led to growing calls among politicians for a major military operation, including assassinating leaders of Hamas.
No Palestinian group has taken responsibility for the attacks, but the military generally holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the enclave.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh on Friday told Mladenov that Hamas did not know who fired rockets at Israel in the past week, and was conducting an investigation into the launches.
Since the last major eruption of violence in early May, Hamas has largely acted to contain violent activities at the rallies, but it was not clear whether the terror group intended to continue this policy.
Top generals in the IDF were expected to push for a much stronger response to rocket fire and arson balloons from the Gaza Strip after the attacks, Channel 12 news reported Friday.
Citing a senior military source, Channel 12’s veteran military analyst Roni Daniel said Israel was “on the verge of a serious military campaign,” and said the IDF was considering ending its policy of warning occupants of buildings ahead of airstrikes, even if it causes casualties.
However, political analysts noted that it was unlikely that the government would authorize a major military campaign ahead of the elections set for September.
Tensions with Gaza have been steadily rising in recent weeks, with Israel blocking Gazan fishermen from access to the sea in response to multiple incendiary balloons being launched over the border.
Hamas has complained that Israel is not fully implementing an unofficial ceasefire deal between the sides, while Jerusalem has accused Palestinian terror groups of breaching the understandings.
The tensions have threatened to undo the unofficial ceasefire brokered after a major flare-up in early May, in which both sides exchanged the most intense fire in years, leading to the deaths of four Israelis and 29 Gazans.
According to Channel 12 news, last month’s agreement includes a Hamas obligation to halt violent incidents along the border fence, maintaining a buffer zone 300 meters (roughly 1,000 feet) from the border; an end to the launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli communities and nighttime clashes between Gazans and security forces; and an end to flotillas trying to break through the maritime border between Gaza and Israel.
In return, Israel expanded the fishing zone and agreed to enable United Nations cash-for-work programs, allow medicine and other civil aid to enter the Strip, and open negotiations on matters relating to electricity, crossings, healthcare and funds.