A shaky ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad appeared to be taking hold early on Tuesday, ending a two-day round of violence that had threatened to disrupt next week’s Israeli national elections.
Musab al-Berim, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, said the ceasefire went into effect at 11.30pm on Monday, several hours after an earlier truce quickly unravelled. He said Egypt and UN mediators had negotiated the new deal, and nearly an hour later things appeared quiet on both sides.
During two days of fighting, Israeli aircraft pounded dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip while Islamic Jihad militants bombarded southern Israel with heavy rocket fire.
Israel also expanded its retaliation to Syria, where some of the Iranian-backed group’s leaders are based, killing two Islamic Jihad militants in an overnight air strike.
Earlier in the day, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is locked in the final days of a divisive election campaign, ramped up his rhetoric, threatening Gaza’s Hamas rulers with a stepped-up operation if the rocket fire continued.
“I’m talking about a war,” he told Israel’s Army Radio station. “I only go to war as a last option, but we have prepared something you can’t even imagine.”
Early on Monday evening, Islamic Jihad declared a unilateral ceasefire, but Israel continued to strike targets in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of continued “aggression” and resumed its rocket fire, drawing further Israeli air strikes and an Israeli closure of Gaza’s key border crossings and fishing zone.
“The enemy did not commit itself into stopping its aggression,” said Abu Hamza, another Islamic Jihad spokesman.
Then just before midnight, the ceasefire finally appeared to be taking hold.
Despite the rhetoric, all sides had an interest in ending the fighting quickly.
For Netanyahu, the violence has drawn unwanted attention to his inability to halt years of attacks and rocket fire by Gaza militants.
Hamas, while bitter enemies with Israel, is nonetheless more interested in easing a crippling Israeli blockade than fighting another war.
Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, has been exposed in the past few months as a relatively weak and disorganised group – acting more as a spoiler to diplomatic efforts than a serious military threat to Israel.
In recent months, Israel has worked with UN and Egyptian mediators to cement a broader informal agreement with Hamas, the much larger Islamic militant group that has governed Gaza for more than a decade.
These “understandings” have eased the painful Israeli blockade in exchange for Hamas guarantees to maintain quiet. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
While Hamas has largely honoured its truce obligations, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad has continued attacks. The latest round of fighting erupted early on Sunday after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad militant it said was planting explosives along the border.
An Israeli military bulldozer pushed into Gaza to retrieve his body. Footage of the bulldozer lifting the body and dangling it off the front of the vehicle quickly spread on Palestinian social media, drawing angry comments and putting pressure on the militants to respond.
Islamic Jihad militants began firing rockets late on Sunday, and had launched 80 rockets by the time the ceasefire was announced, according to the Israeli military.
The military said over 90% of the rockets were intercepted, but one projectile slammed into an empty playground in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage to a jungle gym.
Schools were closed in Israeli areas adjacent to Gaza, roads shut and restrictions placed on outdoor public gatherings. The Israeli military said the restrictions would remain in effect on Tuesday.
It was the heaviest round of fighting since November, when Israel and Islamic Jihad engaged in a two-day battle after Israel killed one of the group’s top commanders.
The latest Israeli air strikes targeted only Islamic Jihad positions, but Israel holds Gaza’s Hamas rulers responsible for all fire coming out of the coastal enclave.