Israel strikes Gaza Strip after rocket fire

No casualties reported during the exchange of fire in Israel or Gaza; flare-up began after six Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli troops.

GAZA CITY - Palestinian militants said on Saturday they would halt attacks into Israel from the Gaza Strip after they fired the heaviest rocket salvoes across the Israel-Gaza barrier since August.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of the armed groups that operates in Gaza, said an Egyptian-mediated truce had been reached.

"After contacts between the Islamic Jihad leadership and the brothers in Egypt it was agreed that a comprehensive ceasefire will begin immediately," spokesman Daoud Shehab said. "The Islamic Jihad will abide by the ceasefire if the occupation (Israel) does the same."

Egyptian security officials have been talking separately to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an attempt to restore calm along the fence separating the Gaza Strip.

An Israeli military spokeswoman declined comment on Shehab's remarks and there was no immediate response from other Israeli officials. Israel rarely acknowledges it has reached a truce with Gaza's militant groups which it designates as terrorist organisations.

Earlier, the Israeli army had accused the Syrian government of ordering Palestinian militants in Gaza supported by Iran to fire dozens of rockets into southern Israel, and threatened to retaliate wherever it chose.

The barrage of rockets, which began late Friday and continued into Saturday, triggered extensive retaliatory strikes by Israeli aircraft against Gaza that risked escalating into a wider conflict.

The new flare-up came hours after six Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers near the fence, even as the territory's Islamist rulers Hamas said Egypt was seeking to negotiate a return to calm.

"The rockets that were launched against Israel... we know that the orders, incentives were given from Damascus with the clear involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force," army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said, referring to the Guards' foreign operations unit.

Shehab dismissed the allegation as "an Israeli attempt to escape its responsibility" for Friday's protest deaths. 

Israel regularly accuses Iran of aiding Gaza militants, but rarely levels the charge in connection with a specific rocket attack. It has struck scores of times inside Syria during the seven-year civil war there, at what it has said were Iranian targets or Tehran's transfers of weapons to Hezbollah fighters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare visit to Oman on Friday. Israel and some Gulf states share an interest in curbing Iran's influence in the region.

Oman's foreign affairs minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said on Saturday the sultanate was offering ideas to help Israel and the Palestinians come together but was not acting as mediator.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014.

'Not limited'

At least 39 rockets were fired at southern Israel by the Islamic Jihad group since late Friday, with 17 of them intercepted by air defences and the rest hitting open ground, according to the Israeli army.

The Islamic Jihad said in a statement it had fired the rockets in response to Israel's killing of Palestinian protesters on Friday near the Gaza fence.

"The Islamic Jihad will abide by a ceasefire as long as the enemy abides by it. Should bombardment and aggression continue, the resistance will respond," the group said.

Israeli aircraft carried out extensive retaliatory strikes, targeting approximately 90 sites belonging to the territory's Islamist rulers Hamas.

Conricus said that Israel held Hamas responsible for the fire, even though it was carried out by Islamic Jihad at the behest of Syria and its ally Iran.

"We hold Hamas responsible for everything coming from Gaza," he said.

Conricus said Israel would also retaliate against the Syrian government and Iran's Quds Force, and would choose where.

"Part of the address by which we will deal with this fire is also in Damascus and the Quds Force," he said. "Our response is not limited geographically."

The biggest rocket barrage from Gaza in months came despite talk of progress towards an Egyptian-brokered deal to end months of often violent protests along the separation barrier in return for an easing of Israel's crippling 11-year blockade.

On Sunday, Israel reopened the people and goods crossings with Gaza and on Wednesday renewed the flow of Qatar-funded fuel to the Palestinian enclave, in an indication of its confidence that Hamas would rein in violence.

The Friday marches however drew 16,000 protesters, some of them clashing with Israeli soldiers.

Five Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli fire in separate incidents along the fence, the Gaza health ministry said.

A sixth died when a hand grenade he was holding exploded accidentally, witnesses said.

'Expanding the response'

In Israel, warning sirens sounded through the night in the towns and communities near the Gaza fence, sending residents of to bomb shelters. Some rockets were intercepted.

Explosions echoed through Gaza, where militants usually vacate potential targets when violence flares, as buildings shook and flames lit up the night sky.

There were no reports of casualties in Gaza as a result of the Israeli air strikes, which began late Friday and continued on Saturday.

In Gaza City, a four-storey building was completely destroyed in a strike,correspondents reported.

The Israeli army said it was a major headquarters of Hamas.

Israel has fought three wars since 2008 with Hamas and its allies, including Islamic Jihad, and Egypt and the United Nations have been leading diplomatic efforts to avert a fourth.

The armed wing of Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, had threatened to continue the rocket fire on Saturday.

The "resistance is considering expanding the response in number and type, if the enemy continues its aggression against our people," it said.

Israel has struck Syria dozens of times in recent years, saying it is preventing Iran from supplying advanced weapons to enemies of the Zionist state.

Palestinians have gathered for protests along the fence at least weekly since March 30.

At least 213 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since the protests began. The majority were shot during protests, while smaller numbers were killed by Israeli air strikes or tank fire. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper over the same period.

The protesters are calling to be allowed to return to lands their families were expelled from by Jewish immigrants from Europe in the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation.

They are also protesting over Israel's crippling blockade.

Reports on Friday suggested that a deal had been reached that would see the protests end in exchange for an easing of the blockade, which Israel says is necessary to isolate Hamas.

Critics say it is actually collective punishment of the two million Palestinians who are packed into the Gaza Strip, which is in a deep economic crisis.