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Islamic Jihad leader says cease-fire reached with Israel

Islamic Jihad leader says cease-fire reached with Israel
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Gaza City, May 14 (AP) A leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza says a cease-fire has been reached with Israel to end five days of heavy fighting.

Mohamad al-Hindi told the Al Kahera Wal Nas channel that the Egyptian-brokered deal would go into effect at 10 pm local time (1900 GMT).

“Now, this agreement has been reached thanks to continuous Egyptian effort. We appreciate this effort,” he said.

As he spoke, Israel reported continued rocket fire out of the Gaza Strip. There was no Israeli comment on the cease-fire announcement. But the Egyptian station had earlier reported a deal was imminent. A similar announcement last week by Egypt unraveled amid continued fighting.

The fighting has killed 33 Palestinians inside Gaza, including at least 13 civilians. Two people were killed by rocket fire in Israel, including an 80-year-old Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from Gaza who had a permit to work in Israel.

The Al-Qahera satellite channel said Egypt had brokered a cease-fire and it would go into effect at 10 pm (1900 GMT). Egypt often serves as a broker between the warring sides. Egyptian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the behind-the-scenes efforts, confirmed an agreement was in place.

The signs of progress came as fighting continued. Last week, another Egyptian effort to forge a truce unraveled.

Earlier Saturday, shrapnel from a Palestinian rocket that slammed into an agricultural community in Israel’s southern Negev desert killed a Palestinian labourer who had been working inside Israel, Israeli defense officials said. A second Palestinian laborer was badly wounded.

There were no immediate reports of casualties Saturday from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, where so far 34 Palestinians have been killed, at least 13 of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Over 147 have been wounded. But residents said homes of people uninvolved in fighting had been struck.

In a reminder of the combustible situation in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military raided the Balata refugee camp near the northern city of Nablus, sparking a firefight that killed two Palestinians. In a separate incident near the northern city of Jenin, Israeli police said they shot and killed a suspected Palestinian assailant who ran toward soldiers wielding a knife.

Meanwhile, Israeli military Saturday bombed an apartment belonging to Islamic Jihad commander Mohammed Abu Al Atta, among other targets including rocket launchers, it said.

Islamic Jihad militants fired several barrages of rockets toward southern Israel, where tens of thousands of Israelis were instructed to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters. Hundreds of residents near the border were evacuated to hotels farther north.

Islamic Jihad promised a further onslaught. “As assassinations and the bombing of apartments and safe houses continue, the Palestinian resistance will renew its rocket fire … to emphasize the continuation of the confrontation,” the group said. Mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants crashed into the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, the Israeli civil defense body said, sharing footage of a fiery explosion at the main passageway into Israel.

Israeli officials told media that Egyptian-led efforts to broker a cease-fire were still underway but that Israel has ruled out the conditions presented by Islamic Jihad in the talks. Israel has said only that quiet will be answered with quiet, while Islamic Jihad has been reportedly pressing Israel to agree to halt targeted assassinations, among other demands.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said Israel had made “significant achievements” throughout the fighting and that Islamic Jihad’s continued fire “enables us to continue to make further achievements.”

“We are prepared to continue the targeted strikes and striking in a precise and increasing manner,” he added.

The hostilities erupted on Tuesday when Israel targeted and killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders who it said were responsible for firing rockets toward the country last week. At least 10 civilians, including women, young children and uninvolved neighbours were killed in those initial strikes, which drew regional condemnation.

Over the past few days, Israel has conducted more airstrikes, killing other senior Islamic Jihad commanders and destroying their command centers and rocket-launching sites.

On Saturday, Palestinians ventured out to assess the damage wrought by Israeli warplanes and salvage whatever they could. One man carefully pulled documents out from under the rubble. Another carried away a mattress.

Four homes in densely populated residential neighbourhoods were reduced to dust in the pre-dawn attacks. The Israeli military alleged the targeted homes belonged to or were used by Islamic Jihad militants. The residents denied the army’s claims and said they had no idea why their homes were targeted.

“We have no rocket launching pads at all. This is a residential area,” said Awni Obaid, beside the debris of what was his three-story house in the central town of Deir al-Balah.

The nearby house of his relative, Jehad Obaid, was also leveled. He had been standing some hundred meters away when his apartment was bombed.

“I felt like vomiting because of the dust,” he said.

“This is extraordinary hatred. They claim they don’t strike at children, but what we see is craziness, destruction.”

Islamic Jihad has retaliated by firing over 1,200 rockets toward southern and central Israel, according to the military. On Friday, the group escalated its assaults and fired rockets toward Jerusalem, setting off air raid sirens in the Israeli settlements south of the contested capital.

Most of the rockets have fallen inside Gaza, landed in open areas or been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system. But a rocket on Thursday penetrated missile defenses and sliced through a house in the central city of Rehovot, killing an 80-year-old woman and wounding several others.

Hamas, the larger militant group that has fought four wars against Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, has praised Islamic Jihad’s strikes but remained on the sidelines, according to Israeli military officials, limiting the scope of the conflict.

As the de facto government held responsible for the abysmal conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Hamas has recently tried to keep a lid on its conflict with Israel. Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, a more ideological and unruly militant group wedded to violence, has taken the lead in the past few rounds of fighting with Israel.

On Saturday, the deadly Israeli raid into the Balata refugee camp turned the focus of the conflict back to the long-simmering West Bank. Residents said that Israeli forces besieged a militant hideout, sharing footage of a large explosion and smoke billowing from the crowded camp. Ejected bullet casings littered the alleys. Blood soaked the streets. The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the two as 32-year-old Said Mesha and 19-year-old Adnan Araj. At least three other Palestinians were wounded in the raid, the latest of near-daily Israeli arrest operations against suspected militants in the territory.

The Israeli military said the targeted apartment harboured militants who had planned attacks against Israeli soldiers and manufactured improvised explosive devices.

It said the blast and fire erupted after Israeli security forces detonated explosives inside the hideout. The two Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces opened fire on a group of gunmen who were shooting at them, the military said.

Israeli-Palestinian fighting has surged in the West Bank under Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Since the start of the year, 111 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press the highest death toll in some two decades. In that time, 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis.(AP)

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