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New Israel-Gaza violence tests fragile ceasefire

2 min 41Approximate reading time

Israel launched fresh strikes against Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza early Friday in response to rocket fire, underscoring the fragility of a ceasefire agreed after an escalation that killed 34 Palestinians.

The ceasefire began on Thursday morning following two days of fighting triggered by Israel's targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad commander.

The Israeli military said it carried out new strikes overnight against Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas.

They came after at least seven rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, two of which were intercepted by air defences.

The military said it "views the violation of the ceasefire and rockets directed at Israel with great severity."

It said it was prepared to "continue operating as necessary against all attempts to harm Israel civilians".

Two wounded Palestinians were being treated in hospital in the southern part of the territory, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

The ceasefire brokered by Egyptian and UN officials, the usual mediators between Gaza and Israel, was agreed as the flare-up raised fears of a new all-out conflict.

During the day on Thursday, normal life had resumed quietly in Israeli regions near the Gaza border, while in the blockaded enclave residents had also embraced the return of relative calm.

"We hope for peace, we don't want war," said Mahmoud Jarda, an inhabitant of the enclave.

To keep a lid on tensions, Palestinians cancelled weekly protests along the Gaza-Israeli border that have often led to violence since March 2018.

At least 311 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since then, most of them during demonstrations and associated clashes.

- Bomb shelters -

The escalation began early Tuesday with Israel's targeted killing of a top Islamic Jihad commander, Baha Abu al-Ata, whom it accused of being behind rocket fire and other attacks.

The violence came at a politically sensitive time for Israel, with no new government in place since a September election ended in deadlock.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abu al-Ata "was killed alongside dozens of terrorists" after the strike on his home, adding: "Our enemies got the message: We can reach anyone, even in their bed."

That strike triggered almost immediate retaliatory rocket fire from Islamic Jihad at Israel, setting off air-raid sirens and sending Israelis rushing to bomb shelters in the country's southern and central regions.

Israel's military said around 450 rockets had been fired at its territory since Tuesday morning and air defences had intercepted dozens of them in fireballs high in the sky.

No Israelis were killed, though one rocket narrowly missed speeding cars on a busy highway. Israeli medics said they had treated 63 people as of Wednesday night for mild injuries and stress.

Israel responded with air strikes, saying it targeted more Islamic Jihad militant sites and rocket- and missile-launching squads.

Islamic Jihad has said several more of its members were among those killed in the fighting this week.

Palestinian officials said eight members of the same family, including five children, were killed in an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip.

- 'Hiding ammunition' -

Israel's military said the man targeted and killed in that strike was an Islamic Jihad rocket unit commander.

"He, like many others, had the tactic of hiding ammunition and military infrastructure in their own residence," said military spokesman Jonathan Conricus.

"Of course we try always to minimise the amount of non-combatants killed or injured."

Relatives, neighbours and an Islamic Jihad spokesman disputed that he belonged to its military wing, with some saying he had previously worked as a Palestinian Authority military police officer.

"This is a war crime," said neighbour Adan Abu Abdallah. "You are killing innocent children, sleeping at home."

Unusually, Israel has singled out Islamic Jihad rather than hold Hamas -- the Islamist movement that rules Gaza -- responsible for the violence.

Israeli analysts said it was a clear signal the army sought to avoid a wider conflict in Gaza, where Israel and Palestinian militants have fought three wars since 2008.

Hamas repeatedly said it would not abandon its ally, but its decision not to join the fight helped maintain a fragile truce with Israel that has seen tens of millions of dollars in Qatari aid flow into the impoverished Gaza Strip since last year.

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