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Calm returns to Gaza after rockets draw Israeli response

Two sides exchange fire over night; Gaza groups deny involvement

By AFP - Mar 28,2019 - Last updated at Mar 28,2019

An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel, on Wednesday (Reuters photo)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Calm returned Wednesday after three rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel overnight, prompting retaliatory fire from Israel and threatening a Hamas-declared truce.

But while the shaky ceasefire seemed to be taking effect, there were concerns the first anniversary of mass protests along the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday could lead to further tensions.

A big turnout is expected for the anniversary of the marches, which have been calling for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their former homes now inside Israel.

Israel says such calls amount to a campaign for its destruction and accuses Hamas of orchestrating violence along the border.

The protests have drawn a deadly response from the Israeli forces, which says its actions are necessary to defend the frontier.

Palestinians and human rights groups say protesters have been shot while posing little threat.

The exchange of fire overnight came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was prepared for further military action in Gaza, at a highly sensitive time ahead of an April 9 Israeli general election.

On Wednesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, speaking from the rubble of his office destroyed by an Israeli air strike earlier in the week, said “I salute all parties that sought to stop the Zionist arrogance towards the Gaza Strip.”

“We stress that we will rebuild the movement’s headquarters, and this is a symbol of steadfastness,” he said.

The latest severe flare-up began early on Monday when a rare long-distance rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house north of Tel Aviv, wounding seven Israelis.

Israeli forces hit back with air strikes across the enclave and Palestinian militants launched a further barrage of rockets. No deaths have been reported.


‘Do what is necessary’ 


Calm prevailed throughout Tuesday, with Hamas claiming Egypt had brokered a ceasefire, but as night fell Israel said a rocket was fired from Gaza.

In response, an Israeli forces statement said “fighter jets struck several terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip, including a Hamas military compound and a weapons manufacturing warehouse in Khan Yunis.”

A Palestinian security source said an air strike hit a Hamas military base in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.

Shortly before midnight (2200 GMT Tuesday), Israeli forces reported a second rocket attack, this time on an industrial zone on the edge of the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon.

Hamas, its main Gaza ally Islamic Jihad and smaller groups took pains to disassociate themselves from the incident.

“The rocket that hit near Ashkelon was the work of an individual and the factions are committed to calm” as long as Israel is, they said in a joint statement.

Early on Wednesday, Israel struck back.

“Fighter jets and aircraft struck several terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip in a Hamas military compound in Rafah,” an army statement said.

Before dawn, another rocket was fired at Ashkelon but was brought down by Israeli air defences,
the army said.

Netanyahu, who cut short a high-profile visit to the United States to take charge of Israel’s response, said on Tuesday: “we are prepared to do a lot more.”

“We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state,” he told the annual conference of US pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC by satellite link.

The army said that after a meeting with Netanyahu — who is also defence minister — chief of staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi ordered more forces sent to the southern border region.


Avoid fourth war 


As polling day looms, the prime minister is widely believed to want to avoid the unpredictable consequences of what would be Israel’s fourth war with Gaza since 2008 but he faces heavy political pressure.

Netanyahu said earlier on Tuesday that Israel’s response to the Gaza rocket fire was the largest-scale attack on Hamas targets since their 2014 conflict.

Israel closed its border crossings with Gaza to both people and goods, and reduced the offshore limit it imposes on Gaza fishermen.

It did not confirm the ceasefire announced by Hamas.

Israeli forces blame Hamas for the rocket that struck north of Tel Aviv on Monday.

A Hamas official, however, denied the group was responsible, saying it may have been fired by accident or even due to “bad weather”.

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