Israel and Gazans in tit-for-tat attacks

Tentative ceasefire holding after Israeli air strikes kill four in Gaza, following Hamas rocket attacks.

    Israel and Gazans in tit-for-tat attacks
    Two loud explosions also shook Gaza City shortly after the attack that killed the Hamas gunman [Reuters]

    Tensions remain high around Gaza after Israeli raids killed four Palestinians and two Thai workers were seriously wounded by rocket fire, with Israel's defence minister vowing to punish Hamas.

    Reports indicated that a tentative ceasefire was holding on Thursday morning, after the intervention of Egypt to help mediate between the two sides. The Israeli military said that no rockets had been fired from Gaza after 17:30 GMT on Wednesday.

    Israeli schools near the border were operating as normal, public radio said, after being closed for the day due to heavy rocket fire which began on Tuesday night and sparked a brief but deadly confrontation between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli army.

    In Gaza, Palestinians officials also confirmed a quiet night without any air strikes.

    "The contacts Cairo made resulted in a verbal promise by Hamas to calm the situation down and Israel said it was
    monitoring calm on the ground and would refrain from attacks unless it was subject to rocket fire from Gaza," an official close to the talks told the Reuters news agency.

    Amos Gilad, an Israeli defence official, confirmed that Egypt had intervened to mediate a calming of tensions, but asserted that there was no direct agreement between Israel and Hamas.

    "It can be said categorically that there is no agreement with Hamas, there has never been and there will never be. ...
    The only thing that has been set and said is that there will be calm. We are not interested in an escalation," Gilad added.

    The latest violence began on Tuesday evening when Palestinian fighters fired six rockets at Israel shortly after a high-profile visit to the coastal enclave by the Qatari emir.

    Several hours later, Israeli aircraft killed two fighters from Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, in northern Gaza, sparking more rocket fire.

    An early-morning raid near southern city of Rafah killed a third fighter from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), and later in the morning, a Hamas fighter hurt in the evening strikes died of his injuries, medics said.

    Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza City, said: "Four Palestinians killed in a day is spike in numbers, with the killings and also the rockets there is an increase in tension, things currently are really tense in Gaza as border crossings are also closed."

    The Israeli military said armed groups had fired 79 rockets and mortar shells over the border since midnight local time (22:00 GMT), injuring six, two of them seriously.

    Police said two Thai nationals were "seriously to critically wounded" while a third sustained light injuries.

    Fighters from Hamas and the PRC claimed responsibility for the rocket fire in a statement.

    Hamas accused Israel of stepping up air strikes in the Gaza Strip, a move it said was meant to convey Israeli anger over
    Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit, and pledged to "continue to hold a gun ... until Palestine is liberated".

    "Hamas will receive its punishment for what has happened here," said Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister.

    "No terror element responsible for causing damage in Israel, or to Israelis, will be spared," he said on a tour of the area around Gaza, hours after the two Thais were severely wounded and four others were lightly hurt by the rocket fire.

    Referring to "the battle against Hamas and other terrorist organisations," Barak said he hoped the military's targeting of armed groups would "calm them down."

    "If they cannot be calmed, and the rockets continue, then the IDF (military) will act," he said, noting that since the start of 2012, nearly 600 rockets and mortars had been fired at southern Israel.

    But he warned it was likely to be a long campaign.

    "The issue is far from over. The struggle has not come to an end and it will not come to an end here in the next week."

    An Israeli military statement said: "Israeli Air Forice aircraft targeted a rocket launching site in the northern Gaza Strip. In addition, tank shells were fired towards terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip. Hits were confirmed."

    Two loud explosions also shook Gaza City shortly after the attack that killed the Hamas gunman, but no casualties had been reported.

    Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israel "bears full responsibility for what happens to our people in Gaza."

    Robert Serry, the UN's peace envoy, deplored the escalation, calling on all parties to exercise utmost restraint.

    Blockade-busting bid

    Meanwhile, Israel on Wednesday expelled 15 international activists who had tried and failed to reach Gaza by boat at the weekend in a bid to breach the maritime blockade on the territories, a spokeswoman for Israel's immigration service said.

    "Fifteen foreign activists were expelled. Only two Norwegians are still in detention and awaiting expulsion," Sabine Hadad told the AFP news agency.

    There were 30 pro-Palestinian activists and parliamentarians on board the Finnish-flagged Estelle which was intercepted by the Israeli navy on Saturday in international waters some 38 nautical miles off the 45km-long Gaza Strip.

    Of that number, three were Israelis and 27 were foreign nationals. Ten were sent home on Sunday and Monday.

    Among those on board were 79-year-old Canadian and former lawmaker Jim Manly, as well as five members of parliament from Norway, Sweden, Spain and Greece.

    Israel says its blockade of the Gaza Strip is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory, home to 1.6 million people.


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