By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Wednesday under a de facto ceasefire after the most intense flare-up of hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel since a 2014 war.
Militants from Hamas, the dominant group in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets and mortar bombs at southern Israel throughout Tuesday and overnight, to which Israel responded with tank and air strikes on more than 50 targets in the small, coastal enclave.
There were no reports of further attacks after Hamas announced early on Wednesday that it would cease fire if Israel did the same. Israel signaled it would halt its strikes if the rocket barrages stopped.
But even during the fighting, both sides appeared bent on avoiding wider conflict after weeks of violence along the fenced border.
Hamas did not launch long-range rockets at Israel’s heartland, even as salvoes from Gaza interrupted daily life in small Israeli border communities. Israeli forces targeted encampments that appeared to have been vacated in anticipation of attack.
No deaths were reported by militant groups or by Israel, which said three of its soldiers were wounded by shrapnel from projectiles.
A Palestinian official said Egyptian mediation led to a ceasefire, and terms of the “understanding” did not go beyond “a restoration of calm by both sides”.
Hamas had largely abided by an Egyptian-brokered truce that ended the seven-week Gaza war four years ago.
In Israeli towns near the frontier, where rocket warning sirens sounded frequently on Tuesday, schools reopened on Wednesday morning. Gaza’s streets were filled with shoppers.
Israel stopped short of declaring any formal ceasefire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it, along with Western nations, regards as terrorist organizations, but said any resumption of Palestinian attacks would bring a stronger military response.
“When they test us they pay immediately and if they continue to test us then they will pay far more,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a memorial service in Tel Aviv.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Israel Radio he understood there was an “indirect agreement with Hamas to end the current round (of fighting).”
Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab, acknowledging a ceasefire was in effect, said its success would depend on “whether Israel will refrain from any military escalation against Gaza”.
Both Hamas and the pro-Iran Islamic Jihad said they fired their salvoes in response to Israel’s killing of at least 116 Palestinians since March 30 in Gaza border protests.
Islamic Jihad had vowed revenge in response to Israeli tank shelling that killed of three of its men on Sunday after explosives were planted along the Gaza frontier fence.
Violence along the border escalated in recent weeks. Israel drew international condemnation for its use of deadly force against mass demonstrations by Gaza Palestinians.
Palestinians are increasingly frustrated at their prospects for an independent state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been moribund since April 2014 and Israeli settlements in occupied territories have expanded.
By late Tuesday, Israeli aircraft had hit 55 facilities belonging to militant groups in Gaza, including a cross-border tunnel under construction, in response to the Palestinian barrages, the military said.
Israel said some 70 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into its southern territory. Some were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten before it was due to open.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)