Israeli tanks hit Hamas positions in Gaza after rocket fire

Response appears designed to keep tensions in check amid mediation efforts after day of relatively restrained protests along border

This picture taken on March 30, 2019 shows Israeli Merkava main battle tanks stationed near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
This picture taken on March 30, 2019 shows Israeli Merkava main battle tanks stationed near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israeli tanks shelled Hamas positions in Gaza early Sunday morning, hours after several rockets were fired at Israel from the enclave.

The IDF said its tanks hit “a number of positions belonging to the Hamas terror group,” in retaliation for the rocket fire, which capped a day that saw four Palestinians killed in protests along the border.

The Shehab news site, affiliated with Hamas, reported that a tank shelled a position east of Deir Balah in the central Strip at around 3 a.m.

There were no reports of injuries or damage.

Israeli officials said earlier that five rockets fired from Gaza landed in open areas in the Eshkol region before 1 a.m. There were no reports of injuries or damage and no claims of responsibility.

The relatively tame response to the rocket fire appeared designed to keep tensions from snowballing amid intensive efforts to broker a long-term calm between the sides, after relatively restrained border protests on Saturday.

Over 40,000 Palestinians took part in rallies at the Gaza border Saturday afternoon to mark a year since the start of the “March of Return” protests, with some rioters throwing grenades and explosives toward the security fence as well as lobbing rocks at troops and burning tires.

Tear gas canisters fall amongst Palestinians during a demonstration near the border with Israel, in Malaka east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2019 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The enclave’s Hamas-run health ministry said three 17-year-old Palestinians were killed during the protests, while at least 300 were injured. Another Palestinian was shot and killed in the early morning Saturday before the main demonstration began, reportedly as he approached the border fence during overnight protests.

The army said soldiers responded with “riot dispersal means” and live fire in accordance with IDF regulations, noting that most Palestinians attending the one-year anniversary of the “March of Return” protests remained at a distance from the border.

During the protests Hamas actively worked to keep protesters away from the security fence as part of apparent understandings with Israel.

IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis said Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, had “operated with restraint not seen in the past year.”

Egyptian mediators, shuttling between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, have been engaged in exhaustive efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire deal. The understandings between the sides reportedly included Hamas making arrangements for preventing violence during Saturday’s protests.

Earlier, an official with the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip, said the sides could reach understandings for a long-term calm “within days,” and Israeli officials were reportedly looking into easing some restrictions on the Strip in place since last week after the relative lack of violence over the weekend.

Israeli military vehicles keeping position at the border fence as Palestinians waving national flags demonstrate to mark the first anniversary of the ‘March of Return’ protests, March 30, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Under the Egyptian plan, Israel is to offer economic incentives for Gaza in exchange for calm. These are said to include easing restrictions on imports and exports, extended fishing zones and more.

On Saturday night, the government had ordered the IDF to plan to open two crossings closed last week should calm remain overnight.

Israeli security forces inspect the scene of a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the town of Mishmeret in central Israel on March 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Erez pedestrian crossing and the Kerem Shalom commercial terminal were both shuttered Monday after a rocket launched at central Israel destroyed a home and injured seven people. A fishing ban in place since then was also due to be lifted.

Saturday night and Sunday morning also saw dozens of Gazans demonstrating near the border fence as part of nightly protests by so called “confusion units.” The demonstrations normally include rolling burning tires at the fence as well as hurling stun grenades and improvised explosives, and shining laser pointers at troops across the border.

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