Egypt brokers truce -- for now -- between Hamas and Israel


JERUSALEM (AP)

Gaza’s Hamas rulers said late Thursday that a truce had been reached with Israel, ending an intense two-day burst of violence that had pushed the region closer to war. But the deal did not appear to address the deeper issues that have prevented the bitter enemies from reaching a longer cease-fire arrangement.

Hamas’ Al Aqsa TV channel reported late Thursday that the Egyptian-brokered deal has taken hold “on the basis of mutual calm.” It said the deal was mediated by Egypt and other unidentified regional players.

A senior Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the agreement merely ended the latest round of violence, in which Gaza militants fired some 200 rockets at Israel and the Israeli military carried out a similar number of airstrikes in Gaza. He said Egypt, which often serves as a mediator between the sides, would continue the more difficult task of brokering a long-term cease-fire.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, denied a deal had been reached. But early Friday, the situation in Gaza appeared quiet.

The Hamas announcement came shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet ordered the army to take unspecified “strong action” against Gaza militants as the military reinforced units along the border.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. In this week’s fighting, the Palestinian Health Ministry said three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter and a Hamas militant, were killed in separate airstrikes. Israeli officials said seven people were wounded by rocket or mortar fire on the Israeli side.

At times, Thursday’s fighting resembled the 2014 war. In Israel, air raid sirens warning of incoming rocket fire wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, canceling outdoor summer cultural events and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.

A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.

Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike flattened the five-story cultural center in the Shati refugee camp, a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City. The airstrike set off a powerful explosion and sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air, causing crowds to scream in panic. Medical officials said at least seven bystanders were wounded.

The building is home to a popular theater and exhibits plays and other shows on a daily basis. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.

“The deliberate targeting of a cultural center with airstrikes and destruction ... is a barbaric act,” said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was “an Israeli attempt to sabotage” the Egyptian cease-fire efforts.

The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. Hamas’ Interior Ministry, including its secret police, has offices in an adjacent site, but those offices were not hit.

Despite the animosity, the enemies have signaled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war. Reaching a deal, however, will likely require major concession on both sides.

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