Roads reopened and train service resumed in southern Israel on Tuesday morning as a ceasefire appeared to hold between the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following two days of intense fighting around the Gaza Strip.
However, schools remained closed out of concerns that rocket fire could resume.
Over the course of Sunday and Monday, terrorists in the Strip fired over 90 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel. Some 90 percent of the projectiles heading toward populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, according to the Israel Defense Forces, though one managed to slam into a playground in Sderot, and shrapnel caused damage elsewhere. There were no serious injuries on the Israeli side.
The IDF retaliated to the attacks with several rounds of airstrikes against the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as a rare publicly acknowledged attack against the group’s facilities outside Damascus late Sunday night, in which two members of the terrorist organization were killed.
The Israeli strikes only targeted the Islamic Jihad, though Israel says it generally holds Hamas, Gaza’s de facto ruler, responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip.
Palestinian sources linked to the Islamic Jihad terror group told Arabic-language media that a ceasefire went into effect at 11:30 p.m, over an hour after an earlier attempt at calm appeared to unravel.
An Israeli defense official said Jerusalem had received messages from the terror group that it was interested in a ceasefire, but remained “skeptical” about the matter.
No rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza following the announced ceasefire, as of 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
As a result, the military reopened a number of highways adjacent to the Gaza Strip that had been closed and allowed train service to resume between the Ashkelon and Sderot stations.
The local councils of the regions surrounding the Strip also removed their instructions to residents to remain within close proximity of bomb shelters, allowing them to fully return to work, and outdoor gatherings were again permitted.
As a result of the school closures, some 55,000 students stayed home on Tuesday.
On Monday night, Israel also announced it was closing its border crossings with Gaza, halting cargo deliveries to the blockaded territory and preventing travelers and workers from exiting. It also said it would not allow Gaza’s fishermen to go out to sea.
Israeli authorities warned that fighting could erupt again and said the military was remaining at the ready to respond to any attacks.
The ceasefire, if it remains in place, would appear to pull Israel and Gaza back from the brink of all-out conflict.
The fighting was touched off on Sunday morning when Israel killed a member of Islamic Jihad who the IDF said was planting a bomb along the border and then sent a tractor into the Strip to retrieve the corpse, in an operation caught on film that angered many in Gaza.
The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday night, the Islamic Jihad said it had completed its “retaliation” for Israel killing three of its members, but threatening to respond to any Israeli “aggression.” Within hours, it accused Israel of continuing to attack and resumed rocket fire, setting off air-raid sirens in southern Israel.
“The enemy did not commit itself into stopping its aggression we we resumed based on the fire-for-fire principle,” said Abu Hamza, spokesman of the group’s armed wing.
Throughout the day Monday, Israeli leaders threatened harsh action against Gaza if the fighting continued, saying looming elections slated for March 2 would not dictate its defense policy.
“I’m talking about a war,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Army Radio. “I only go to war as a last resort, but we have prepared something you can’t even imagine.”
Netanyahu also appeared to threaten to kill the heads of Gaza’s terror groups if rocket fire from the Strip continued.
“We will continue to strike until the calm returns. If there isn’t quiet, you’ll be next,” Netanyahu said, during a visit to the city of Ashdod.
The border clashes came amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to seal a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.
The agreement reportedly includes significant measures by Israel to ease its blockade of the Strip, which Jerusalem says is in place to keep terror groups in the Gaza from arming or building up defense infrastructure.
As with an earlier flareup in November following the assassination of a high-level Islamic Jihad commander, Hamas appeared to remain on the sidelines during the round of fighting, a likely sign of its desire to reach a long-term truce with Israel that would include measures to end the blockade.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the group seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Still, Netanyahu appeared to be reluctant to pick a fight with Hamas so close to the March 2 election. Hamas is much more powerful than Islamic Jihad, and it has shown itself capable of barraging Israel with rocket fire for weeks at a time.
Hamas also has little interest in renewed fighting at a time when it is trying to improve living conditions for the territory it controls.
Netanyahu’s opponents have criticized him for his understandings with the group, accusing him of caving in to violence to keep things quiet.
“Netanyahu, the country is under fire. Get on helping it,” said Netanyahu’s chief rival, former military commander Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party. “The people of the south deserve better.”
The election will be Israel’s third in under a year, after two inconclusive votes last year.
Netanyahu, locked in a tight race with Gantz, has tried to focus the campaign away from his upcoming trial on corruption charges by presenting himself as an experienced statesman who is best-suited to protecting Israel’s security.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.