All security restrictions have been withdrawn from the Gaza border communities after a situation assessment by the Israeli army, according to the IDF Spokesperson's Unit on Friday.
Earlier on Friday, following a quiet night in the Gaza border communities, Israel's Home Front Command issued new instructions to residents. Summer day camps have been allowed inside shelters, and the Ashkelon-Sderot train returned to regular activity.
Following an escalation in hostilities between Israel and Gaza beginning on Wednesday, a foreign diplomat told Haaretz that Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire late Thursday. According to the diplomat, the cease-fire is not part of a wider agreement being negotiated between the two parties.
Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV channel reported that the cease-fire had taken hold "on the basis of mutual calm." An Egyptian source told Haaretz that the cease-fire took effect at 11 P.M., while Reuters reported that a Palestinian official with knowledge of the talks said the cease-fire would begin at 11:45 P.M. local time.
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An Israeli official, however, denied all reports of such an agreement being reached. The conflicting reports came shortly after Israeli security officials said the chances of a full-fledged military operation in the Gaza Strip have decreased.
According to Israeli assessments, Hamas wants to end the current round of violence following the damage and casualties caused by the Israeli military's attacks on the Gaza Strip. An Israeli official told Haaretz that while Hamas has been seeking to sign a cease-fire agreement through intermediaries since Thursday morning, Israel continued to attack high-profile targets.
Egypt said earlier Thursday that it has been working with both Israel and Hamas since Wednesday to prevent an escalation and continued attacks on the Strip. According to an Egyptian source, Cairo is continuing its communication with various actors in order to restore the calm and prevent further flare-ups.
After a four-hour meeting at the IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv, sources told Haaretz that the current assessment is that Israel will refrain from launching a large-scale military operation in the Strip if no rockets are fired from Gaza overnight Thursday. The Prime Minister's Office said that "the security cabinet has directed the IDF to continue taking strong action against the terrorists."
The military said it struck 150 targets in Gaza in retaliation to some 200 rockets fired from the Strip at Israel. Over 30 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Several exploded inside Israel, including in the southern city of Be'er Sheva, located some 40 kilometers from the Strip. This was the first time rockets were fired at the city since the 2014 Gaza war. As a result of the rocket launches, a woman in Israel was seriously wounded while two others suffered light injuries.
Gaza's Health Ministry reported that three Palestinians were killed by the Israeli attacks, including a pregnant woman, 23, her 18-month-old toddler and a man, who was identified as 30-year-old Ali Alrandur. He is the son of one of the commanders of Hamas' armed wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam. Six other people were wounded by the strikes.
Hours after the rocket hit Be'er Sheva, the IDF renewed its attacks on Gaza, destroying a building in the al-Shati refugee camp in northwestern Gaza. The strikes wounded 18 Palestinians, reports in Gaza said. According to the IDF, the five-story building was used by Hamas's internal security forces.
Palestinian sources, however, reported that the building housed a cultural center. A source in Gaza said that the building is located near the house of senior Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, who is from al-Shati refugee camp. A resident of the camp, where the building is located, told Haaretz that "the attacked building is an art and culture center which has no political or security use. The building also serves the Egyptian community that lives in Gaza. There is no reason to target this building other than harming a Palestinian cultural symbol."
The head of the Egyptian community in Gaza Adel Abd Al- Rahman said that the destroyed cultural center "serves thousands of of Palestinian mothers and was destroyed in a brutal and terrible way."
The military started striking in the Strip overnight Wednesday after six rockets were fired from Gaza, landing in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and wounding 11 people. Eight people were admitted to the Soroka hospital in Be'er Sheva and seven in Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon; a woman was in serious condition, and 13 others were treated for shock trauma. The sites in Gaza targeted by the Israeli military included a military compound east of Rafah and attack tunnels belonging to Hamas, the army said.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon appealed to the UN Secretary General and to the members of the UN Security Council, calling on them to “condemn the terror organization Hamas for its relentless terror attack in recent days on the communities in the south.” Danon said that “Hamas is solely responsible for the terror attacks and for launching beyond 180 rockets that have destroyed the hope of the children living near Gaza for a quiet summer vacation. No country would tolerate such a situation.”
The United Nations' Middle East envoy, Nikolay Mladenov, released a statement late Wednesday night concerning the escalation between Israel and Gaza. "I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation, particularly by today's multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel," he wrote.
"For months I have been warning that the humanitarian, security and political crisis in Gaza risks a devastating conflict that nobody wants. The UN has engaged with Egypt and all concerned parties in an unprecedented effort to avoid such a development," Mladenov continued.
"Our collective efforts have prevented the situation from exploding until now. If the current escalation, however, is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people," he warned.
U.S. special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt critcized Hamas actions overnight, tweeting: "Hamas regime again is launching rockets at Israeli communities. Another night of terror and families huddling in fear as Israel defends itself."
"This is the Hamas regime's choice. Hamas is subjecting people to the terrifying conditions of war again," he added.
Hamas spokesman Abed Lateef Kano warned Thursday morning that Israel's attacks will not be tolerated: "The resistance forces are doing what they have to do as part of protecting the Palestinian people from Israeli aggression," he said. "The brutal Israeli attack and the targeting of civilians will not be tolerated quietly, and the occupation will pay the price and will not be successful in dictating a new equation," he added.
British Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt expressed concern over the "deteriorating situation in Gaza/Israel and civilian casualties." In particular, he was worreid over reports of death of pregnant woman and child." Burt added that "Hamas must end attacks against Israel. Support UN/Egypt efforts to restore calm and agree ceasefire. Escalation is in no-one’s interest."
Opposition lawmakers blasted Netanyahu's government for failing to achieve a lasting truce in Egyptian-mediated ceasefire talks with Hamas.
"Netanyahu and Lieberman! You have failed!" Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay tweeted. "Is this the way to hold a negotiation? Our hearts are with the residents of the Gaza border region and we support the IDF in its mission of restoring security to residents of the area."
Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni said that "this government has weakened the moderates and strengthened the radicals, four years of wasting time." She continued, saying: "This government prefers a Hamastan near the residents of the south. The 'let the IDF win' motto clearly doesn't work without complementary policy."
The developments came a day after the Israeli military fired at a Hamas facility in northern Gaza in response to fire from the Strip aimed at Israeli security forces. The tank fire killed two members of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades' al-Nukhba elite unit and wounded six others, reports in Gaza said. The al-Qassam Brigades is the military wing of Hamas.
According to the IDF, the incident occurred due to a misunderstanding: The military believes that the shots that prompted an Israeli response were not deliberately aimed at IDF soldiers, but were part of a ceremony of the al-Qassam Brigades.
An IDF engineering corps force was operating in the area when the shots fired from Gaza were heard. The IDF thought it was an attempted sniper attack, and it was decided to fire a tank shell at the position in response.
An initial investigation has found, however, that the shooting took place two kilometers away from where the soldiers were operating. At this stage, it remains unclear whether the IDF knew of the ceremony, during which weapons were being fired. The assessment is that if any information had been received earlier about the event, senior IDF officers would not have approved the tank fire.