Hamas leader appears in public as fighting with Israel tails off

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The leader of the militant group Hamas viewed the rubble of his bombed office in Gaza on Wednesday, appearing in public as an uneasy calm took hold after two days of cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes.

But while violence eased amid Egyptian mediation, Israeli forces along the Gaza frontier and militants in the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave were on hair-trigger footing.

No deaths have been reported in Gaza and Israel since the latest clashes erupted on Monday. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors have destroyed some Palestinian rockets and militants in Gaza vacated facilities hit in the air strikes.

Towns in southern Israel reopened classrooms and schools were also operating in Gaza, where streets were filled with traffic.

Hamas’s top leader, Ismail Haniya, emerged from a secret location to see what was left of his wrecked office, targeted by an Israeli air strike on Monday.

“The occupation,” he said, referring to Israel, “should not be under the illusion it can break the will of our people.”

A senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, retorted: “Haniya should find himself a new office before he starts sounding off.”

ALSO READ: Palestinian medic killed by Israeli fire in West Bank clash

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.

Israeli soldiers are seen next to mobile artillery units near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel, on March 27, 2019. (Reuters)
Israeli soldiers are seen next to mobile artillery units near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel, on March 27, 2019. (Reuters)

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.

Anniversary nears

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday’s initial rocket attack that hit the village of Mishmeret, 120 km north of Gaza. Twelve Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli strikes, Gaza health officials said.

After a daylight lull on Tuesday, Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes resumed after dark, but only briefly.

The latest escalation is the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2008 and 2014 and have come to the brink of a fourth several times since.

In the 2014 Gaza war, more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in seven weeks of fighting. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel were killed.

This week’s fighting comes ahead of the first anniversary on March 30 of the start of weekly Gaza protests at the frontier.

Preparing for a one-million-person march

The protests’ organizing committee said it was preparing for a one-million-person march to mark the anniversary on Saturday at five locations along the frontier with Israel.

Some 200 Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire in the past year. One Israeli soldier was killed.

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

The protesters are demanding the right to return to lands Palestinians fled or were forced to leave in Israel during fighting that accompanied its founding in 1948.

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.

In further violence in the West Bank on Wednesday, about 150 Palestinian students threw firebombs and rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets, a day after an Israeli raid on Birzeit university.

Three protesters were wounded by rubber bullets, ambulance crews said. There were no reports of Israeli casualties. The Israeli military said it arrested 11 Palestinians in the West Bank overnight suspected of what it termed terrorist activities, but gave no specifics.

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