Tense calm returns to Israel’s south after night of strikes, rockets at Ashkelon

Tense calm returns to Israel’s south after night of strikes, rockets at Ashkelon

Schools in Gaza-adjacent communities and cities open, reportedly amid ‘calm for calm’ agreement, after days of conflict sparked by projectile that destroyed central Israel house

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli troops take up positions near the Gaza border on March 26, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops take up positions near the Gaza border on March 26, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

A tense calm descended upon southern Israel and the Gaza Strip on Wednesday morning after another night of rockets and airstrikes, with schools and train service resuming in all Israeli communities and towns.

All municipalities and regional councils said education institutions would open — including those that had announced closures the night before — after the army announced it was removing earlier restrictions amid an unofficial ceasefire, denied by Israel, which was brokered by Egypt after days of conflict that threaten to deteriorate into an all-out war between Israel and terror groups in the Strip.

Though schools throughout southern Israel reopened, roughly a quarter of all students in the Eshkol region — one of the areas most hit by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza — remained on home Wednesday, the local government said.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Wednesday that a Hamas source said intensive and complex communications had yielded an agreement of “calm for calm,” but that the talks almost collapsed when Israel insisted Hamas halt all types of border violence, including riots along the security fence and the launching of airborne incendiary and explosive devices into Israel.

Hamas reportedly set a condition for agreeing to such a demand only in the case of a wider and more comprehensive agreement to lift the blockade of the Strip, which Israel says is to prevent arms reaching the terror group. A source close to Hamas told the newspaper that the Egyptian delegation will visit Gaza shortly if all sides maintain the state of calm.

Two rockets were launched overnight toward the city of Ashkelon and an industrial park south of the city, with both intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the army said. No injuries or damage were reported.

The Israeli Air Force launched renewed strikes in Gaza in response to earlier rocket launches toward the Eshkol region, bombing a number of targets connected to the Hamas terror group around the southern Gaza cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets targeted a Hamas military complex and weapons manufacturing facility in Khan Younis, as well as a Hamas military base in the southern city of Rafah.

A picture taken on March 26, 2019, shows the destroyed office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City that was targeted the night before by an Israeli air raid. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel holds Hamas, the Strip’s de facto rulers since 2007, responsible for any fire emanating from the coastal enclave.

In its statement, the Israel Defense Forces said its strikes were in response not only to the rocket fired at the Eshkol region, but also to the launching of several airborne incendiary devices earlier in the day and a cross-border arson attack in which several Palestinian breached the Gaza security fence and set fire to an abandoned Israeli sniper’s nest.

Tuesday night violence came amid an unofficial ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas terror group, following a large-scale flareup that began with a rocket fired from the Strip Monday morning that flattened a home in a farming community of central Israel, injuring seven people, including two small children.

In response to the rocket strike, the Israeli military launched a series of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, destroying dozens of targets including the office of Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh, who had earlier fled the building, and other locations that the military described as strategic assets for the terror group.

A home in the southern town of Sderot is hit by shrapnel from a rocket attack launched by terror groups in the Gaza Strip on March 25, 2019. (Meital Adri/Sderot Online)

Throughout the Israeli bombing campaign, terrorists in the Strip launched at least 60 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, causing no injuries, but some damage to buildings in the southern town of Sderot.

The Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rocket attacks ended around dawn on Tuesday morning, leading to an uneasy calm throughout the day.

On Tuesday night, a senior Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that a truce had been reached and threatened additional attacks on Hamas targets in the Strip.

“There is no ceasefire agreement. The fighting may resume at any moment,” the official said.

At the same time, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi ordered additional reinforcements to the Gaza border region following consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, and other top security officials.

There are fears in Israel that violence will ramp up this week, with Hamas hoping to draw hundreds of thousands of rioters to the fence at the weekend to mark a year since the start of the so-called March of Return protests, which began March 30, 2018.

Adam Rasgon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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