Gaza militants accept cease-fire; No word from Israel
JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas and other Gaza militant groups said Tuesday they have accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire after launching hundreds of rockets into Israel over the past 24 hours and weathering a wave of punishing Israeli airstrikes.
There was no immediate word from Israel on whether it had accepted a deal to halt the heaviest exchange of fire with Gaza's Hamas rulers since a 2014 war.
Just an hour before the militants made their declaration, the Israeli Security Cabinet said it had ordered the military to "continue operations as needed," following a six-hour meeting.
The cease-fire was announced by a group of Gaza militant groups, including Hamas, whose leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier signaled a readiness to halt the latest round of fighting. He said the Islamic militant group would stop its rocket fire if Israel halts its airstrikes.
The terms of the deal appeared to be modest. Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad militant group, said each side would promise quiet in exchange for quiet.
The fighting was triggered by a botched Israeli undercover raid into Hamas-ruled Gaza late Sunday, in which seven Palestinian militants and a high-ranking Israeli officer were killed. International mediators have appealed for restraint, hoping to avert another war.
The Israeli military said some 460 rockets and mortar rounds have been launched from Gaza since Monday afternoon, with more than 100 of them intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system.
Israel said it has struck some 160 militant targets in Gaza, including a strike that destroyed Hamas' TV station. Three other buildings believed to be connected to Hamas were destroyed, it said.
On Tuesday, Gaza's Health Ministry said three Palestinians in their 20s were killed in separate airstrikes, raising the number killed since the Israeli offensive began to seven, including five militants. At least 25 people have been wounded.
Israeli medical officials said a 48-year-old man was found early Tuesday under the rubble of a building hit by a rocket in the southern city of Ashkelon.
Relatives in the West Bank town of Halhoul identified the man as Mahmoud Abu Asbeh, a Palestinian laborer who had been working in Israel. He left a wife and six children behind.
"Everyone in town is sad. It's God's will and there's nothing we can do about it," said his cousin, Jihad Abu Asbeh.
Nearly 30 people have been wounded in Israel, three critically, according to medical officials.
The military said jets struck several "key strategic" Hamas targets, including military compounds, rocket launching posts and part of its vast underground tunnel network. Also targeted was a Gaza City building serving Hamas' military and intelligence forces that houses a munitions warehouse.
Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Thousands of Palestinians and scores of Israelis have been killed, while Hamas has remained firmly in power and Israel has faced international criticism.
Earlier Tuesday, the armed wing of Hamas threatened to step up its attacks and fire rockets further north toward the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheba if Israel continued its airstrikes.
The spokesman for the Hamas military wing, identified only as Abu Obeida, said the deadly attack on the coastal city of Ashkelon showed the city "has entered the range of fire as a response to the bombing of buildings in Gaza." He said Ashdod and Beersheba "are the next targets if the enemy continues bombing civilian buildings."
School was cancelled in large parts of southern Israel and a local election was postponed because of the threat of further attacks.
Over the past few months, the sides have come close to a major escalation several times, only to step back in favor of giving Egyptian mediation a chance.
The latest rocket fire was triggered by a botched Israeli raid in Gaza on Sunday. Undercover troops, apparently on a reconnaissance mission, were discovered inside Gaza, setting off a battle that left seven militants, including a Hamas commander, and a senior Israeli military officer dead. Hamas then fired a guided missile that struck a bus from which soldiers had just disembarked, critically wounding a 19-year-old soldier.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli forces were targeting facilities belonging to the two main Gaza militant groups behind the rocket attacks — Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
He said the Israeli military has enhanced its deployment along the frontier but has yet to call up reserves. He said Gaza militant groups were believed to have an arsenal in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortars of different caliber and range.
In Gaza, schools and public institutions were closed as people ventured outside to inspect the damage after a long night of aerial raids. Near the destroyed TV station, residents salvaged papers and belongings from their damaged homes. Debris was strewn across the streets and glass crunched underfoot.
In Gaza City's Rimal neighborhood, a six-story residential building that housed a kindergarten on its ground floor was destroyed.
"All the people here are civilians, children and families. We took our children and fled from here. When we returned, we found great destruction," said Mamdouh al-Shurafa, a resident of the building. "When we are bombed in the middle of the city, where can we go?"
In the most recent war, over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them civilians, and tens of thousands were left homeless. Seventy-three people, most of them soldiers, were killed on the Israeli side.
An Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on Gaza after the Hamas takeover 11 years ago has devastated the local economy while failing to prevent militant groups from developing and expanding their arsenals.