GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel and the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza reached a cease-fire on Thursday to end the heaviest Gaza fighting in months that killed at least 34 Palestinians, including three women and eight children, and paralyzed parts of Israel.
Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Berim said the Egyptian-brokered deal went into effect at 5:30 a.m. An Israeli military spokesman tweeted that the Gaza operation â€œis over.â€ Some restrictions were lifted on residents of southern Israel and traffic returned to the streets of the Palestinian coastal territory.
Israel hailed the operation as a victory, defending its policy of targeting militants in their homes despite civilian deaths, while Islamic Jihad said it had succeeded in getting Israel to agree to cease-fire based on several demands, including a halt to Israeli targeted killings of the groupâ€™s leaders.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee did not confirm any such deal, listing on Twitter only Israeli accomplishments in the fighting, while Israelâ€™s foreign minister said targeted killings of militants would continue.
The fighting broke out early on Tuesday after Israel killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militant group who was said to be behind a string of rocket attacks and who Israel said was believed to be planning a cross-border infiltration.
The rare targeted killing by Israel sparked the heaviest fighting with Gaza militants since May. Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, while Israel responded with scores of airstrikes.
Gazaâ€™s ruling Hamas militant group, which is much larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, stayed out of the latest escalation – an indication that it would be brief.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the policy of targeted killings had â€œproved itselfâ€ and that it would continue, despite word of the cease-fire.
â€œEveryone who was a top military official, who was set to carry out and was involved in terror or rocket firing against Israel was eliminated,â€ he told Israeli Army Radio. â€œAnd we intend to continue with this.â€
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett warned Gaza militants they were not safe anywhere.
â€œA terrorist who tries to harm Israeli citizens will not be able to sleep soundly, not in his home and not in his bed and not in any hiding place,â€ he said, according to a statement.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said at least 23 militants were struck and defended attacks on their private homes, saying Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons, making them legitimate targets.
Palestinian officials say 34 people were killed, including at least 18 militants. They say eight children, including a pair of 7-year-olds, and three women were among the dead.
The rocket fire crippled life across southern Israel and on Tuesday, also in the countryâ€™s heartland in and around Tel Aviv, as nonstop air-raid sirens canceled schools and forced people to remain indoors. At least three people were lightly wounded from shrapnel or shattered glass. Most rockets landed in open areas or were shot down by Israelâ€™s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Much of Gaza resembled a ghost-town, with almost no vehicles on the roads except for ambulances evacuating the wounded.
Shortly after al-Berimâ€™s announcement, at least two rockets were fired out of Gaza, setting off sirens in southern Israel. It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets or whether the launches were intentional or misfires caused by electronic timers.
But the Islamic Jihad said it was committed to ending the fighting, saying the fire was likely because word hadnâ€™t spread to all members about the halt to violence.
Israel doesnâ€™t usually acknowledge deals with militant groups. But U.N. and Islamic Jihad officials were in touch Wednesday with Egyptian mediators, who typically broker agreements to end fighting in Gaza, and Israel did not respond to the rocket launch.
Also, the Israeli militaryâ€™s Home Front command tweeted that it was lifting restrictions in certain areas but leaving them in place in the areas surrounding Gaza.
In Gaza, cars could be heard back on the streets as the territory appeared to be springing back to life. Israeli military drones could still be heard buzzing overhead.
Late Wednesday, Islamic Jihadâ€™s leader, Ziad al-Nakhalah, announced three conditions for an end to the fighting: an end to targeted killings, a halt in Israeli shootings of protesters at weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border and easing a 12-year-old Israeli blockade that has devastated Gazaâ€™s economy.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Israel considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which both seek its destruction, to be terrorist groups.
The killing of Bahaa Abu el-Atta on Tuesday coincided with a strike in the Syrian capital of Damascus that targeted another Islamic Jihad commander. Israel hasnâ€™t claimed responsibility for that attack and the commander was not killed, but the strikes stepped up Israelâ€™s regional conflict with Iran and its proxies.
Israel often strikes Iranian interests in Syria and the fresh fighting looked to awaken Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region.
Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money. Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has some of its leadership in Beirut and in Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.
As Iran’s proxy in Gaza, the group is key to Tehran’s strategy of keeping pressure on Israel on all fronts.
Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israel has also claimed that Iran is using Iraq and far-off Yemen, where Tehran backs Shiite rebels fighting government forces and a Saudi-led coalition, to plan attacks against Israel. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.
The violence came at a touchy time in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two elections ended inconclusively and after he failed twice to form a governing coalition.
His main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, is now trying to cobble together a government, but his chances appear slim. If he fails by next week, Israel could be on its way to an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum typically rally behind the government during a military operation, and Netanyahu has briefed Gantz before and during the violence, setting off speculation the conflagration may succeed to push the men toward an agreement.
The escalation also comes ahead of an expected indictment against Netanyahu for a number of corruption allegations.
During the months of election campaigning, the long-serving Israeli leader has sought to depict himself as the only leader capable of steering Israel through its myriad security challenges, painting Gantz as weak despite his military bona fides.
With the legal woes hovering, the latest round of violence could help to bolster Netanyahuâ€™s image.
Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem.