Tense calm returns after flareup between Hamas, Israel

Violence eases amid Egyptian mediation but Palestinian fighters and Israeli forces on hair-trigger footing after attacks briefly resumed late on Tuesday.


Violence eases through Egyptian mediation after overnight attacks.


Tensions building ahead of anniversary of Gaza protests.


Crisis likely to shadow Israel's April 9 election.

JERUSALEM - Schools reopened in southern Israel and traffic clogged Gaza's streets on Wednesday in signs of a pullback from the most serious escalation of cross-border fighting in months.

But while violence eased amid Egyptian mediation, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants were on hair-trigger footing, with rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli air strikes in the enclave briefly resuming late on Tuesday after a day-long lull.

Despite dozens of rocket launchings and Israeli attacks, no deaths have been reported. Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors have destroyed some of the rockets and Palestinian militants vacated facilities targeted in the air strikes.

Towns in southern Israel, where rocket-warning sirens have disrupted daily life since the current round of fighting began on Monday, reopened classrooms. In Gaza, schools were also operating and cars filled the streets.

The Gaza frontier remained tense, however, with Israeli troops and tanks deployed along the border. Both Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group made clear that attacks by the other side would not be tolerated.

Even if the crisis subsides, it could shadow Israel's April 9 election, in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough security platform. The exchange of fire overnight came after Netanyahu said he was prepared for further military action in Gaza.

As polling day looms, the prime minister is widely believed to want to avoid the unpredictable consequences of what would be Israel's fourth war with Gaza militants since 2008 but he faces heavy political pressure.

Security is a major issue for Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations that he denies. He is facing his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

Netanyahu said earlier Tuesday that Israel's response to the Gaza rocket fire was the largest-scale attack on Hamas targets since their 2014 conflict.

Israel closed its border crossings with Gaza to both people and goods, and reduced the offshore limit it imposes on Gaza fishermen. It did not confirm a ceasefire through Egyptian mediation that was announced by Hamas.

The Israeli army blames Hamas for the rocket that struck north of Tel Aviv on Monday. A Hamas official, however, denied the group was responsible, saying it may have been fired by accident or even due to "bad weather".

Evening flare-up

Calm had prevailed throughout Tuesday, after Hamas claimed Egypt had brokered the ceasefire, but as night fell Israel said a rocket was fired from Gaza.

In response, a military statement said "fighter jets struck several terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip, including a Hamas military compound and a weapons manufacturing warehouse in Khan Yunis."

A Palestinian security source said an air strike hit a Hamas military base in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.

Shortly before midnight (2200 GMT Tuesday), the army reported a second rocket attack, this time on an industrial zone on the edge of the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon.

Hamas, its main Gaza ally Islamic Jihad and smaller groups took pains to disassociate themselves from the incident.

"The rocket that hit near Ashkelon was the work of an individual and the factions are committed to calm" as long as Israel is, they said in a joint statement.

Early on Wednesday, Israel struck back.

"Fighter jets and aircraft struck several terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip in a Hamas military compound in Rafah," an army statement said.

Before dawn, another rocket was fired at Ashkelon but was brought down by Israeli air defences, the army said.

Netanyahu, who cut short a high-profile visit to the United States to take charge of Israel's response, said Tuesday: "We are prepared to do a lot more.

"We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state," he told the annual conference of US pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC by satellite link.

The army said that after a meeting with Netanyahu -- who is also defence minister -- chief of staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi ordered more forces sent to the southern border region.

Tensions building

On Wednesday, a Hamas spokesman said: "The Gaza Strip has lived under Israeli aggression for two days. The Hamas movement has exercised its right to defend its Palestinian people."

"The situation has calmed down after the intervention of the brothers in Egypt and the entry into force of the ceasefire," said Hazem Qassem.

The latest fighting has added to tensions that were already building ahead of the first anniversary on March 30 of the start of weekly Gaza protests at the fence separating the Gaza Strip.

A big turnout is expected for the anniversary of the marches. The protesters are demanding the right to return to lands Palestinians were forced to leave in present-day Israel, during the fighting between Paletinians and Jewish immigrants from Europe that accompanied the Israeli state's founding in 1948.

Some 200 Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire during those protests, and one Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian sniper.

Palestinians and human rights groups say protesters have been shot while posing little threat. Those killed by Israeli troops during the protests have included children, paramedics and journalists.

Israel says its use of lethal force is meant to stop attempts to breach the border and launch attack on its troops and civilians.

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday's initial rocket attack that hit the village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza. No other casualties in Israel have been reported. Twelve Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli air strikes, Gaza health officials said.

Egypt was expected to pursue further truce talks on Wednesday, said a Palestinian official involved in the efforts.

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with Egypt to secure a ceasefire and that a fragile calm had taken hold.

Violence spreads to occupied West Bank

In Dheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops during clashes with stone-throwers, an ambulance service official said, identifying him as a volunteer wearing a paramedic uniform. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Sajid Muzher, 17, was killed in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the southern West Bank, the health ministry said.

In a statement, Palestinian health minister Jawad Awad said the "occupation's killing of a volunteer medic by shooting him in the stomach is a war crime."

The Palestinian Medical Relief Society confirmed he was working with them, saying in a statement he was shot while trying to treat one of those wounded in clashes.

Israeli occupation forces frequently enter refugee camps to carry out arrests or other operations, often sparking clashes with residents.

The World Health Organization "strongly condemned" the killing in a statement, saying the man was killed while providing care to people injured.

"We are saddened by this tragic loss. Health workers provide critical care and save lives. Their protection must be ensured," said Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the WHO office for the West Bank and Gaza.

In further unrest in the occupied West Bank, about 150 Palestinian students threw firebombs and rocks at Israeli occupation soldiers who raided the students' university. The occupation soldiers shot at the students with tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets.

Three people were wounded by bullets and two were treated for tear gas inhalation, ambulance crews said. There were no reports of Israeli casualties.

The protest broke out after Israeli forces, in a night-time raid on Tuesday, arrested three students at Birzeit University. Pro-Hamas activists at the school said the three identified with the Islamist group.

The military said that overnight it had detained 11 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank suspected of what it termed "terrorist activity" but gave no specifics.