Israel and Hamas agreed to restore calm in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Saturday morning, according to a spokesman for the Palestinian group, easing fears that the two sides were hurtling towards their fourth all-out conflict in 10 years.
“With Egyptian and United Nations efforts it has been agreed to return to the era of calm between (Israel) and Palestinian factions,” Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters.
Israeli officials did not immediately comment on the announcement but an army spokeswoman said that there was no known military activity in Gaza during the early hours of Saturday.
Hours earlier, intense fighting – the most serious in Gaza since the 2014 war – raised the specter of a new phase of bloodshed.
Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier on the Gaza border on Friday afternoon, prompting Israel to respond with a wave of airstrikes which killed at least three Hamas fighters.
Tear gas canisters rain down on Palestinian protesters near the border
Tear gas canisters rain down on Palestinian protesters near the border Credit: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency
A fourth Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli troops during demonstrations at the border.
The Israeli soldier was the first to die at the hands of Palestinian fighters in Gaza since the end of the 2014 conflict. The military said he was shot dead by “a terrorist squad” who opened fire from the southern Gaza Strip.
Hamas fired three rockets into Israel later in the evening, according to the Israeli military. Two were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.
Hamas said in a late night statement that Israel would “face the repercussions after choosing to bomb Gaza”.
The UN sounded the alarm as the fighting escalated and urged both sides “to step back from the brink”. “Those who want to provoke Palestinians and Israelis into another war must not succeed,” said Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, convened an emergency meeting of his generals and security ministers at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv in response to the fighting.
Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli minister, warned that the “gloves are coming off”. “The situation is that Hamas has repeatedly ignored our warnings, both private and public,” Mr Hanegbi said.
The escalation comes after months of growing tensions in Gaza as Palestinians mounted large, and often violent, demonstrations and Israeli forces opened fire on both armed militants and unarmed demonstrators. Around 140 Palestinians, mainly unarmed demonstrators, have been killed since late March.
In recent weeks, Palestinians have shifted their focus to sending to burning kites and helium balloons over the Israeli border fence and into the farmland beyond. The kites and balloons have started more than a thousand fires and torched more than 7,000 acres of fields, according to Israel’s military.
Tensions have been rising for months after large protests on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border
Tensions have been rising for months after large protests on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border Credit: Photo by Ashraf Amra /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Israel’s government initially saw the airborne tools of arson as a novel irritant and a less dangerous alternative to the rockets often fired by Hamas and other Islamist factions in Gaza.
But after weeks of unrelenting fires, and growing political pressure from Israelis living near the border, the government has now declared the balloons to be an unbearable provocation that must be met firmly.
Israel has responded by partly closing the main crossing for goods into Gaza. Only food and basic medicine are being allowed through, while fuel and commercial items are barred. The closure has put fresh strain on Gaza’s already crumbling economy.
“We all rely on diesel to run our generators. If no fuel is allowed in everything in Gaza will stop,” said Naael al-Ghazali, a 44-year-old restaurant owner in Gaza City. Human rights groups have called the closures “collective punishment”.
Israeli forces are also now targeting young Palestinian men with airstrikes as they launch the balloons from Gaza. The decision means some of the world’s most sophisticated drones and warplanes are firing towards people inflating condoms or white “I love you” balloons.
Communities like Nahal Oz, an Israeli kibbutz a mile Gaza, have been living on high alert since a wave of mass Palestinian demonstrations along the fence began in late March. Residents have worried about Palestinians surging through the border and spent sleepless nights in bomb shelters as rockets landed nearby.