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May 6, 2019

World News | Middle East | Israel and Gaza militants agree to cease-fire after weekend of violence

By Loveday Morris 

A view shows the remains of a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City May 6, 2019. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
JERUSALEM — Armed factions in Gaza said that they had agreed to a cease-fire with Israel that took hold in the early hours of Monday morning, after militants fired more than 600 rockets toward Israel, which responded with airstrikes. 
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two largest militant groups in Gaza, confirmed that a cease-fire was in place as of 4:30 a.m. local time. A spokesman for the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on the reports but the Israeli military said that protective restrictions for civilians in southern Israel were being lifted as rocket fire had ceased. 
In the past the prime minister’s office has declined to comment or outright denied that it has reached truce deals with Hamas, which are unpopular with parts of the Israeli population and Netanayhu’s own government. On Monday Netanyahu said the campaign was “not over and demands patience and sagacity.” 
“We are prepared to continue,” he said.   
Over the previous 48 hours, four Israelis were killed as dozens of rockets slammed into urban areas of Israel’s south. Palestinian health officials in Gaza said 25 people died as Israel responded with airstrikes that brought buildings in the densely populated strip tumbling down.
It was the worst bout of violence since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, and involved the first Israeli civilian deaths by rocket fire since that clash. 
Hamas officials said they escalated the violence to push Israel to stick to the terms it had agreed after another such flare up in March, when rocket fire had caused Netanyahu to cut short a trip to Washington. It accused Israel of reneging on the deal to allow in cash assistance of $30 million a month from Qatar, expand fishing rights and ease the restrictions on imports and exports that have choked Gaza’s economy. 
With Gaza’s beleaguered population of 2 million people increasingly turning its frustrations toward Hamas, the organization has been desperate to secure an easing of Israeli restrictions, particularly as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approached. Egypt, which has been brokering efforts to reach a longer-term truce, has been opening its land border with Gaza more frequently. 
Netanyahu, however, has also been under criticism from right-wing coalition partners, and residents of southern Israel, for agreeing on deals with Hamas after a spate of rocket fire. This time though, the stakes were particularly high for Israel, as international teams began flying in for Eurovision, an international singing contest, the hosting of which has been a major source of national pride. 
Madonna is slated to perform in the event which will be broadcast from Tel Aviv — in range of Gaza’s rockets. 
Basem Naim, a Hamas official, said that made it a particularly good time to pressure Israel, with its independence day celebrations also held this week. 
Islamic Jihad, which the Israeli military accuses of starting the latest round of violence, said that Israel had agreed to implement the previously agreed “mechanisms” to ease restrictions. “Our people are waiting for an end to the siege,” it said. “The agreement stipulates that the calm is reciprocal and simultaneous.” 
Overnight President Trump tweeted that the United States supports Israel “100% in its defense of its citizens.” 
“To the Gazan people - these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery,” he wrote.   
Hamas has said it has also asked Israel to stop the use of live ammunition against the weekly demonstrations of Palestinian residents on the border fence with Israel. 
Gaza health authorities said that two more Palestinian bodies were pulled out of the rubble on Monday, taking the total killed over the weekend to 25. Of those, Israel denied that two, a pregnant woman and a baby, died as a result of its airstrikes, saying they were hit when a Palestinian rocket misfired. The Palestinian health authority in Gaza said the dead also included another pregnant woman and infant, and a 12-year-old boy. Militant factions said at least nine of the dead were their fighters, with eight of them from the Islamic Jihad, according to the group.
During the flare-up, Israel said it carried out its first targeted assassination in Gaza after a hiatus of several years. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners had been calling for the policy to be brought back. 
The Israeli military said that it had targeted a 34-year-old man who worked in a money exchange office and was responsible for channeling Iranian funds to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An airstrike hit his car on a busy street in Gaza City on Sunday. 
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