GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas abated on Tuesday after a day of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, but Israel said it reserved the right to strike again and kept its troops and tanks massed at the Gaza frontier.
The biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation in months, which began on Monday with the longest-range Palestinian rocket attack to cause casualties in Israel for five years, appeared to have been curbed overnight by Egyptian mediation.
But even if brought to an end, the crisis could have an impact on an Israeli election in two weeks in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on security.
Israel responded to Monday’s rocket attack with a wave of strikes on targets belonging to the Hamas militant group that controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
Seven Israelis were injured in the initial rocket attack and five Palestinians wounded by the retaliatory Israeli strikes.
Netanyahu, who cut short a visit to the United States to fly home and deal with the crisis, said Israel may take further action. The Israeli military said that after consultations with Netanyahu, it was boosting its troops in the area and calling up some reserve forces.
“We are prepared to do a lot more. We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state,” Netanyahu said in a satellite address delivered from Tel Aviv to the pro-Israel U.S. lobby group AIPAC in Washington.
The border fell quiet on Tuesday morning after Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group, which also took part in the fighting, said Egypt had brokered a truce. As in past escalations that ended with Egyptian mediation, Israel denied it had agreed to a ceasefire with groups it views as terrorists.
“Netanyahu is trying to portray himself as a hero to his people, therefore he publicly denies the understanding reached with the Egyptians,” Islamic Jihad official Khader Habib said. “Resistance factions are committed to calm as long as the enemy abides by it.”
Rocket warning sirens, which had sounded in Israeli towns near the border on Monday night, fell silent by morning.
The U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with the Egyptians to secure a ceasefire.
“A fragile calm seems to have taken hold,” he said.
Mladenov condemned indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas toward Israel as provocative and urged restraint by all parties.
The escalation was the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2007 and 2014 and have come to the brink of all-out conflict several times since.
In the 2014 Gaza war, more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in seven weeks of fighting. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel were killed.
Security is a major issue as Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations which he denies, faces his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by an ex-general. Netanyahu says he has kept Israelis safe with a tough stance towards the Palestinians that could be weakened if he leaves office. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled for five years.
In Washington, Netanyahu met U.S. President Donald Trump, who reversed decades of U.S. policy to sign a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
A senior Israeli official said Trump’s move was proof Israel could retain land captured in a “defensive war”, an apparent suggestion of a permanent hold over other areas captured in 1967, such East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
“WE DON’T WANT WAR”
The Israeli military blamed Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, for Monday’s initial strike that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv. It said the rocket had been launched from the enclave, some 120 km (70 miles) away.
Retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza lit up the night sky and explosions rocked the densely-populated coastal enclave, destroying targets that included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The militia said extra Israeli soldiers and tanks had been moved to the border.
In the morning Gazans picked through the rubble of destroyed buildings to search for valuables and documents. Some Gaza universities were shut but schools were open, although many families kept children home.
“We don’t want war, but if Israel wants it then what should we do? We ask our factions to respond,” said Mohammad Sayed, 40. “But we hope Egypt reaches a deal to end this.”
Gaza militants fired barrages of rockets into Israel late into Monday night. Some were shot down by Israeli defenses and others landed in empty areas. Israel remained on high alert on Tuesday and ordered schools near the border closed and residents to stay near bomb shelters.
“I told my kids that everything is going to be all right and that it will be over. We trust the government will solve the problem,” Eliav Vanunu, whose house in the border town of Sderot was damaged by a rocket on Monday night, said on Israel Radio.
Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, mostly descendants of people who fled or were driven from homes in Israel on its founding in 1948. Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war but pulled out troops in 2005. Hamas took control two years later, and Israel and Egypt have since maintained a security blockade that has brought Gaza’s economy to a state of collapse.
In the past year, nearly 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed during demonstrations near the border by Palestinians seeking a lifting of the blockade and the right to return to homes in Israel. Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force to protect the frontier from militants.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Maayan Lubell, Ran Tzabari and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan