GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A fragile ceasefire between Israeli forces and militants in the Gaza Strip appeared to be holding on Sunday after a five-day clash that killed 33 Palestinians and two people in Israel.
The latest round of fighting in Gaza was sparked on Tuesday when Israeli fighter jets killed three top commanders of the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to earlier rocket launches from Gaza. Those killings sparked a barrage from militant forces and the conflagration threatened to draw the region into another all-out war until an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was struck late Saturday.
While the calm seemed to bring a sense of relief to the two million Gazans and hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been largely held in bomb shelters in recent days, the deal did nothing to address the underlying issues that have fueled numerous rounds of fighting between them Israeli and Palestinian militant groups have fueled Gaza over the years.
In Gaza, residents surveyed the recent damage inflicted on their surroundings. Gaping holes were left in the apartments, which Israel says served as hiding spots for the six senior Islamic Jihad members killed in that round. The main Gaza-Israel cargo crossing was due to reopen on Sunday after warnings that the closure of Gaza’s only power plant would lead to the shutdown, exacerbating the power crisis.
Israel lifted most restrictions on residents in southern Israel, who had borne the brunt of the rocket fire.
Israeli officials expressed satisfaction with the recent battle, eliminating many of Islamic Jihad’s top figures through targeted attacks based on solid intelligence. But at least 13 of those killed in Gaza were civilians, including children as young as four and women.
Israel has been criticized in the past by human rights groups for civilian casualties in its bombing of Gaza. Israel says it is doing its utmost to avoid harming civilians in its attacks and says militants are operating out of the territory’s densely populated areas, firing rockets at Israeli communities indiscriminately.
During the fighting, Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Islamic Jihad and its command centers and rocket launch sites showed no sign of stopping the rocket fire, prompting Islamic Jihad to declare victory and send cheering Palestinians onto the streets late Saturday .
Israel reported over 1,200 launches during the fighting, with some missiles reaching as far as the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. Israel said about a quarter of the rockets misfired and landed in Gaza, while most of the rest were either intercepted or landed in open areas. But an 80-year-old woman and a Palestinian worker working in Israel were killed by rocket fire. A Palestinian human rights group said three people, including two children, were killed in Gaza by stray rockets.
It was the latest in a long line of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the Islamist militant group Hamas seized control of the coastal area in 2007. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars, and there have been numerous minor outbreaks as well.
The more powerful Hamas has praised Islamic Jihad’s attacks but has remained on the sidelines during the last round of fighting, limiting the scope of the conflict. While the de facto government has been blamed for the miserable conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Hamas has recently tried to keep its conflict with Israel under control. Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, a more ideological and recalcitrant militant group committed to violence, has taken the lead in recent rounds of fighting with Israel.
Saturday’s deal did not address many of the causes of the repeated fighting, including Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s large arsenals of weapons, and Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but Hamas subsequently overran the area and expelled troops loyal to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is a policy aimed at preventing Hamas from arming itself. The Palestinians and international human rights groups say the policy restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza amounts to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.