Optimism was growing Friday morning that a ceasefire could be drawing nearer after three days of intense fighting between Israel and Gazan terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with no rockets launched from the Strip toward Israel since 10 p.m. on Thursday.
The Israeli military conducted a series of airstrikes late Thursday and early Friday against targets linked to Islamic Jihad, the Israel Defense Forces said, but as of 7 a.m. Friday sirens remained silent, even as both sides girded for the possible renewal of hostilities after days of intense fighting.
The airstrikes were carried out in retaliation for a massive barrage of rockets fired toward southern and central Israel on Thursday evening, which came hours after a rocket directly hit a home in the city of Rehovot, causing Israel’s first fatality in the current flareup and injuring several others.
The military said it struck Islamic Jihad military posts and rocket launchers, publishing footage of 10 separate bombings, with the last sorties coming at 2 a.m.
At the same time, reports overnight indicated that ceasefire negotiations with Egyptian mediation had been renewed after appearing earlier to collapse. Egyptian mediators were said to be optimistic about the chances of achieving a truce.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari confirmed to reporters that talks were taking place.
“There have been contacts for over a day. We don’t comment on them, we don’t know when it will happen. We are busy defending and attacking,” he said.
According to the BBC, the head of the Islamic Jihad delegation to the indirect talks in Cairo had received a ceasefire proposal from Egypt’s intelligence and asked for time to discuss it with the terror group’s leadership.
However, senior Islamic Jihad official Ihsan Ataya was quoted early Friday as saying no agreement had yet been reached, claiming that the Egyptian mediators “can’t provide guarantees” because of Israel’s “lack of commitment.”
He said that Israel halting its policy of assassinating senior militants was a “necessary precondition” for the talks — a demand Jerusalem has flatly rejected.
As the quiet held, Hagari said restrictions put in place at the start of fighting on Tuesday were still valid until 2:00 p.m., but the IDF would assess the situation in the coming hours and decide whether to lift, adjust or even extend them.
He advised Israeli civilians to “not be complacent, even though there have been no launches since 10:00 p.m.”
“We’re making it so citizens can [return] to routine, and it demands patience,” Hagari said. “We don’t have towns locked down, you can leave your homes and do Friday shopping.”
Israel generally avoids confirming ceasefire agreements with terror groups, but several previous rounds of fighting between the IDF and Gaza have come to a close with Egyptian, Qatari and US mediation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a security briefing Thursday night with his security chiefs at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. As it ended, Hebrew media cited a message by the premier’s office that Israel would continue its operation in Gaza “as needed” and “continue to exact a heavy price from Islamic Jihad for its aggression against Israel’s citizens.”
All participants in the meeting agreed that the operation’s goals had been achieved, Channel 12 reported.
Several news outlets said those gathered had decided to continue striking Gaza to pressure Islamic Jihad to agree to a ceasefire or risk even harsher Israeli action.
Another reported decision was to pressure the Hamas terror group to push for a truce as well by keeping crossings between Israel and the Strip closed and not allowing goods and fuel to enter the beleaguered enclave. Israeli officials have insisted that they are keeping the fight limited to Islamic Jihad and not Hamas in hopes of avoiding a wider battle with the larger and better-armed group.
Hagari said Israel struck 215 Islamic Jihad targets during Operation Shield and Arrow, which kicked off early Tuesday with a surprise attack on three senior Islamic Jihad terrorists.
At least 30 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel launched the offensive, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, and at least 93 more injured.
Hagari said Israel had killed 16 terrorists but admitted the IDF was responsible for the deaths of 10 civilians during the initial strikes, which destroyed residential structures where families were sleeping. He said four Gazan civilians had been killed by Islamic Jihad rockets impacting inside Gaza.
Gazan fighters, who only began firing rockets in response to the bombing on Wednesday afternoon, launched 866 projectiles during the conflict, 163 of which fell short of the border and 260 of which were intercepted, Hagari said. Most rockets targeted towns in southern Israel, but some reached as far north as Tel Aviv.
Thursday saw the heaviest fighting yet, with hundreds of rockets fired deep into Israel, and air strikes taking out a commander of Islamic Jihad’s rocket forces and his deputy.
According to Hagari, a technical malfunction caused an Iron Dome interceptor to miss a crudely made rocket that struck an apartment in Rehovot. The resulting strike killed a 70-year-old man and left five others injured, according to the Magen David Adom rescue service.
A bomb shelter in the building was unavailable because it was being used as a storage space, a common occurrence in areas where rocket attacks are less frequent.
Several others were treated for injuries and anxiety attacks stemming from attacks on southern communities.
Rocket attacks on Wednesday caused damage in several southern cities, including Sderot, Ashkelon, Netivot and Beersheba, though no significant injuries.
The IDF pressed their strikes on terror sites throughout Thursday, saying they destroyed an attack tunnel that was dug up to Israel’s security barrier with the Gaza Strip as well as underground rocket launcher sites. Separate airstrikes also killed Ali Ghali, the head of the Islamic Jihad rocket forces, and Ahmad Abu Deka, his deputy.
Both the European Union’s foreign policy chief and foreign ministers of France, Egypt, Germany and Jordan issued public statements Thursday urging a ceasefire.
The foreign ministers said they were “deeply alarmed by this new round of violence and the deteriorating security situation in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, and ongoing developments in Gaza, which has claimed unacceptable civilian casualties including women and children,” in a joint statement issued after their Munich Group summit in Berlin.
They called for an immediate ceasefire “which will end Israeli military operations in Gaza and indiscriminate rocket fire against Israel. International humanitarian law must be respected.”
They also praised Egypt for its mediation efforts and called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to implement commitments made at summits in Aqaba in February and in Sharm El-Sheikh in March.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also pressed sides to agree to a truce, saying in a statement: “We urge an immediate comprehensive ceasefire which will end Israeli military operations in Gaza and current rocket firing against Israel, which is unacceptable. International humanitarian law must be respected.”
Reported efforts to reach a ceasefire had appeared to hit a dead-end after fighting escalated on Thursday, with an Israeli official telling Channel 13 news at one point that a deal was off the table.
Officials earlier said Israel was in talks with Arab countries on a potential ceasefire, but denied reports claiming Israel would agree to a number of controversial concessions, such as the halting of targeted killings and the return of the body of Khader Adnan, a member of the group who died in an Israeli prison earlier this month after an 86-day hunger strike.
His death sparked a brief flareup in violence last week, with Islamic Jihad launching over 100 rockets at Israel. Israel eventually responded to that barrage by launching this week’s Gaza operation, dubbed Operation Shield and Arrow.
Emanuel Fabian, Lazar Berman and AFP contributed to this report.