By FARES AKRAM and TIA GOLDENBERG
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A fragile cease-fire deal to end nearly three days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza held into Monday morning — a sign the latest round of violence may have abated.
The flare-up was the worst fighting between Israel and Gaza militant groups since Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers fought an 11-day war last year, adding to the destruction and misery that have plagued blockaded Gaza for years.
Since Friday, Israeli aircraft had pummeled targets in Gaza while the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group fired hundreds of rockets at Israel.
Over three days of fighting, 44 Palestinians were killed, including 15 children and four women, and 311 were wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Islamic Jihad said 12 of those killed were militants and Israel said some of the dead were killed by misfired rockets.
Israel on Monday said it was partially reopening crossings into Gaza for humanitarian needs and would fully open them if calm is maintained. Gaza’s lone power plant came back online Monday after fuel trucks entered a cargo crossing for the first time since the crossings with the strip were closed last week. The closure prompted a fuel shortage that ground the plant to a halt on Saturday. Gaza suffers from a chronic power crisis.
Life for hundreds of thousands of Israelis was disrupted during the violence. Security precautions imposed in recent days on residents of southern Israel were being gradually lifted Monday, the military said.
Both sides boasted of their successes. Speaking to reporters in Tehran on Sunday, Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah said the militant group remained strong, despite losing two of its leaders. “This is a victory for Islamic Jihad,” he said.
Despite that claim, the group undoubtedly sustained a blow during Israel’s fierce offensive. Beyond losing the two leaders, it reduced its arsenal by firing hundreds of rockets without striking a single Israeli, thanks to Israel’s missile defense system that shot most of them down. Its own rockets may have killed several Gazans, according to Israel.
The cease-fire deal contained a promise that Egypt would work for the release of two senior Islamic Jihad detainees held by Israel, but there were no guarantees this would happen. The weekend fighting was also bound to complicate Islamic Jihad’s relations with Hamas.
A senior Israeli diplomatic official said the offensive had taken Islamic Jihad’s capabilities back “decades.” The flareup was “a successful counterterrorism operation” because Israel achieved its goals in a brief period of time. he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation with the media.
The violence had threatened to spiral into another all-out war but ended up being contained because Gaza’s ruling Hamas group stayed on the sidelines, possibly because it fears Israeli reprisals and undoing economic understandings with Israel, including Israeli work permits for thousands of Gaza residents, that bolster its control over the coastal strip.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the group overran the territory in 2007.
Israel launched its operation with a strike Friday on a leader of the Islamic Jihad, saying there were “concrete threats” of an anti-tank missile attack against Israelis in response to the arrest last week of another senior Islamic Jihad member in the West Bank. That arrest came after months of Israeli raids in the West Bank to round up suspects following a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israel.
It killed another Islamic Jihad leader in a strike on Saturday.
Israel said some of the deaths during this round were caused by errant militant rocket fire, including one incident in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza in which six Palestinians were killed Saturday. On Sunday, a projectile hit a home in the same area of Jebaliya, killing two men. Palestinians held Israel responsible, while Israel said it was investigating whether the area was struck by an errant rocket.
In the occupied West Bank on Monday, Israeli troops demolished the homes of two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a deadly attack against Israelis in the city of Elad in May. The soldiers faced a violent protest during the operation, the military said.
The outburst of violence in Gaza was a key test for Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who lacks experience leading military operations. Still, he unleashed the offensive less than three months before a general election in which he is campaigning to keep the job.
President Joe Biden said he welcomed the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza-based militants.
“Over these last 72-hours, the United States has worked with officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, and others throughout the region to encourage a swift resolution to the conflict,” he said in a statement Sunday.
The U.N. Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting Monday on the violence. China, which holds the council presidency this month, scheduled the session in response to a request from the United Arab Emirates, which represents Arab nations on the council, as well as China, France, Ireland and Norway.
“We underscore our commitment to do all we can towards ending the ongoing escalation, ensuring the safety and security of the civilian population, and following-up on the Palestinian prisoners file,” said U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, in a statement.
The Israeli army said militants in Gaza fired about 1,100 rockets toward Israel, with about 200 of them landing inside the Palestinian enclave. The army said its air defenses had intercepted 380 of them, including two fired toward Jerusalem. The military did not specify what happened to the remainder, but they likely fell in open areas or broke up in the air.
Islamic Jihad has fewer fighters and supporters than Hamas, and little is known about its arsenal. Both groups call for Israel’s destruction, but have different priorities, with Hamas constrained by the demands of governing.
Hamas had a strong incentive to avoid another war. Last year’s Israel-Hamas war, one of four major conflicts, and several smaller battles over the last 15 years, have exacted a staggering toll on the impoverished territory’s 2.3 million Palestinian residents.
Over the past year, Israel and Hamas have reached tacit understandings based on trading calm for work permits and a slight easing of the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt when Hamas overran the territory 15 years ago. Israel has issued 12,000 work permits to Gaza laborers, and has held out the prospect of granting another 2,000 permits.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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