Calm returns after rockets fired at Tel Aviv trigger Israeli strikes on Gaza
Weekly Palestinian protests on Israel-Gaza border cancelled as Egypt reportedly tries to defuse tensions
A cross-border escalation between Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas group wound down on Friday after a rare rocket attack on Tel Aviv from the Palestinian territory triggered scores of retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military.
Reports on Friday suggested that Egypt had brokered a truce and that the rockets were fired from Gaza by mistake, while weekly protests along the Gaza-Israel border that often result in deaths and injuries were cancelled.
Two rockets struck Tel Aviv late on Thursday, taking Israel's military by surprise. Overnight, Israeli warplanes hit some 100 Hamas targets in Gaza. The army said targets included an office complex in Gaza City used to plan and command Hamas militant activities, an underground complex that served as Hamas' main rocket-manufacturing site and a centre used for Hamas drone development.
In Gaza, health officials reported that four people were wounded, including a husband and wife in the southern town of Rafah.
Israeli media on Friday quoted defence officials as saying a preliminary investigation indicated the rockets were fired by mistake. It was not immediately clear if it was a technical malfunction or human error. The Haaretz daily quoted the officials as saying the rockets were fired during maintenance work.
A Hamas official meanwhile said an agreement to restore calm has been reached after Egypt-led meditation efforts "that have apparently paid off". Hamas has yet to confirm any deal.
The sudden outbreak of violence came at a sensitive time for both sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the midst of a tight re-election battle. A tough response would draw international criticism and domestic accusations that he is acting out of political motivations ahead of the April 9 vote. But a restrained response will draw criticism from his fellow hard-line rivals.
Hamas, meanwhile, is coping with its own domestic troubles. Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. The blockade, along with sanctions by the rival Palestinian Authority and Hamas' own mismanagement have fuelled an economic crisis that has driven unemployment over 50 per cent.
Shortly before the rocket attack, Hamas police on Thursday violently broke up a rare protest by demonstrators angry about the dire living conditions in Gaza.
The crackdown triggered heavy criticism on social media. The organisers of a weekly protest along the Israeli border cancelled the demonstration in the wake of the escalation.
The fighting came as Egyptian mediators were trying to extend a ceasefire between the bitter enemies, which last fought a war in 2014. The Egyptians left Gaza late on Thursday.
Hamas, which usually claims responsibility for its military actions, denied involvement in the rocket attack on Tel Aviv and even said it had undermined its interests. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks coming from Gaza.
Thursday's attack on Tel Aviv, Israel's densely populated commercial and cultural capital, marked the first time the city had been hit since the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza militants.
Following the first retaliatory Israeli air strikes, several additional rounds of rocket fire were launched into Israel. The Israeli military said several rockets were intercepted by its air defence systems, and there were no reports of injuries.
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza in 2007. Smaller flare-ups have occurred sporadically since Israel and Hamas fought their last war, in 2014.
Despite its denial, Hamas is one of the only groups in Gaza with the means to strike Tel Aviv. A smaller militant group that also possesses a large arsenal of rockets, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, also denied involvement.
Updated: March 15, 2019 05:17 PM