Fragile quiet in southern Israel and Gaza, after fatal surge of violence
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US: 'Hamas works to destroy Israeli lives; Gazans suffer'

Fragile quiet in southern Israel and Gaza, after fatal surge of violence

Periphery returns to normal life as nighttime ceasefire holds; Friday saw dozens of Hamas targets hit, 3 projectiles fired at Israel, after soldier killed by Palestinian sniper

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

A midnight ceasefire announced by Hamas appeared to be holding on Saturday morning, following a surge in violence after Palestinian snipers shot and killed an IDF soldier on the Gaza border on Friday, sparking widespread Israeli strikes on Hamas targets.

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

“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.”

Israel had no official comment on the ceasefire announcement.

The IDF announced the soldier’s death late Friday night, revealing details on the fatal incident hours after it happened. The soldier’s death was the first IDF fatality on the Gaza front since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

“Today, an IDF combat soldier was killed during operational activity near the southern Gaza Strip. During the incident, a terrorist squad shot at IDF troops and the IDF soldier was severely injured. He later succumbed to his wounds,” the army said.

The soldier was killed during the day’s weekly riots along the border.

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

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

US envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt tweeted his condolences to the slain soldier’s family, saying that “as Israelis work tirelessly on their northern border to treat Syrian refugees, Hamas works relentlessly to destroy Israeli lives and Gazans suffer as a result of Hamas.”

Earlier the IDF said Gaza snipers had opened fire on troops, calling it “the most serious incident” since the 2014 Gaza war.

In response the Israel Air Force launched a major wave of strikes on Hamas targets across the Gaza Strip on Friday evening.

“At this time our aircraft are carrying out widespread attacks against terror targets belonging to Hamas in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said, adding that this came after the “serious shooting incident against our forces.”

A picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows a fireball exploding in Gaza City during Israeli strikes (AFP PHOTO / BASHAR TALEB)

The army said around 60 targets were hit, including three Hamas brigade headquarters in Zeitoun, Khan Younis and al-Bureij. The army said the headquarters were completely destroyed along with “weapons and ammunition stores, training grounds, observation posts, control centers and the offices of the brigade commander.”

The IDF said it also destroyed factories and machinery for the manufacture of weapons, a drone storage facility, an entry shaft to tunnels and “elements for constructing underground infrastructure.”

Four members of Hamas’s military wing were reported killed in the attacks.

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.

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)

The Israeli raids came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to join Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and top IDF generals for a security assessment.

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.”

A picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows smoke plumes rising after an Israeli bombardment in Gaza City.
Israeli aircraft and tanks hit targets throughout the Gaza Strip on July 20 after shots were fired at troops along the border, the army said, with Gaza’s health ministry reporting three Palestinians killed. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Hadashot news that Israel was preparing for a massive response in Gaza.

“Last week the air force carried out strikes that were described as the largest since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. We will look back at it after our response now and say it was a joke,” Hanegbi said. “The gloves are coming off.”

“The situation is that Hamas has repeatedly ignored our warnings, both private and public,” Hanegbi said.

Hadashot news analysts said that while Israel’s response would be widespread, it was unlikely to include the entrance of ground forces.

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.

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

Manelis said Hamas had spent the past three-and-a-half months carrying out acts of terrorism during mass demonstrations at the border, firing rockets and mortar shells into Israel, and launching arson kites and balloons. Israel had tried to convey to terror chiefs that Jerusalem “means business” in demanding that the terrorism stop, but Hamas evidently had not got the message, he told Hadashot TV news.

Manelis noted that the IDF carried out a major drill this week, including simulating a ground incursion to retake control of Gaza, from where Israel withdrew in 2005. Asked whether that was a likely scenario, Manelis said it would be more sensible to first wait for the completion of the current military action “over the next few hours.”

He noted that Israel had deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the south and center of the country, and said the IDF was prepared “for all scenarios.”

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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