Israel and Hamas Trade Blows Amid Talks Toward a Cease-Fire

(Bloomberg) -- Israel and Hamas veered between escalation and cease-fire Thursday after 24 hours of rocket exchanges and airstrikes that threatened to drag the Gaza Strip into war.

Al Jazeera reported late Thursday that Palestinian factions in Gaza had agreed to a cease-fire that would take effect at midnight, ending a day in which Palestinian groups fired 180 rockets into Israel and Israel struck some 150 Hamas targets throughout the coastal strip. A senior Israeli government official denied that any cease-fire had been reached.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, after a four-hour meeting Thursday night, instructed the army to keep taking “strong action” against Hamas forces.

Thursday’s escalation comes after four months of Hamas-led protests at the Gaza fence that began largely peacefully in late March but have taken an increasingly violent turn. As Palestinians send flaming kites and balloons across the border, where they’ve razed thousands of acres of Israeli land, Israeli officials have begun talking of a broader operation in Gaza, perhaps one that would topple Hamas, the militant group that rules the strip. Mediators from Egypt and the United Nations have sought to arrange a cease-fire in exchange for international aid to rehabilitate Gaza.

Heating Up

The conflict began to heat up Wednesday night, a day after two Hamas commandos were killed by Israeli tank fire in disputed circumstances. Hamas’s rocket barrage on Israeli towns and cities Thursday was its fiercest since the two sides last fought a war in 2014. Israel responded with airstrikes up and down the strip against Hamas command posts, training grounds, attack tunnels and weapons storehouses.

Three Palestinians, including a baby, were killed in the Israeli strikes, and seven Israelis were wounded in the Hamas bombardment. A tentative calm returned mid-day as reports emerged that Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire.

Then, a rocket from Gaza struck the Israeli city of Beersheba -- some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away -- for the first time since the 2014 war, and Israel responded by bombing and demolishing a five-story building in the heart of Gaza City. Israel’s Hadashot News reported the building housed Hamas’ internal security apparatus, and was intended as a signal to Hamas of Israel’s intelligence capabilities. Palestinians described the building as a cultural center, and a Hamas spokesman denied any security forces were present.

Flexing Muscles

With neither side seen to have much to gain by letting the situation deteriorate, the attacks may have served as positioning ahead of an eventual cease-fire. Hamas was embarrassed by talk it was willing to agree to a “cheap” cease-fire, and wanted to impress the Palestinian population, said Gaza-based political analyst Akram Atallah.

“Before Hamas reaches any truce agreement, it wants to increase its military credits to end the conflict with a big victory and a military draw with Israel,” Atallah said.

Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told reporters Hamas is still intent on reaching a cease-fire.

“We have here a game in which both parties are trying to reach an understanding but are being swept into a sort of escalation,” Yaari said. Tensions may continue to rise “partly because of public pressure in Israel, partly because you can’t tell people in the south they can go on like this.”

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