Gaza truce holds, Israeli official says Hamas agrees to stop arson kites
A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas largely held on Saturday after the killing of an Israeli soldier a day earlier stoked fears of war in Gaza.
Israel pounded the Gaza Strip throughout Friday, killing three militants, after the soldier was shot dead by Palestinian sniper fire from within the Hamas-run enclave. Just before midnight the Islamist group said it had agreed to a ceasefire mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.
Despite the border remaining largely quiet on Saturday morning, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that it struck a Hamas observation tower after several Palestinians attempted to cross the border into Israel.
The Palestinians who attempted to cross the Gaza border returned back to the enclave, the military said.
In a much hoped-for development for residents of Israel's south, a senior diplomatic official said Saturday that "Hamas suffered a severe blow yesterday and asked for a cease-fire through the Egyptians, while committing to stop the terror of fires (arson) and terror on the fence."
"If Hamas violates this, it will pay an even heavier price," the official added.
If borne out over coming days and weeks, it would represent a significant victory for the Israeli government, which has come under mounting domestic political pressure to stop the attacks from airborne incendiary devices.
For more than a week, Israel has been hardening its response to kites and incendiary balloons launched from Gaza, which authorities say have set ablaze more than 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) on Israeli territory.
Although no kites or balloons were reported to have been launched from Gaza by Saturday afternoon local time, a senior Hamas official told AFP that airborne incendiary devices were not included in the agreement.
The source said the deal included "the cessation of all forms of military escalation" including Israeli air strikes and Hamas mortars and rockets.
"With Egyptian and UN efforts, we reached (an agreement) to return to the previous state of calm between the (Israeli) occupation and the Palestinian factions," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement.
It was the second such ceasefire agreement between the parties in a week and came amid growing fears of a new war.
The Israeli soldier shot dead by Palestinian fire along the border was the first killing of a soldier in and around Gaza since a 2014 war between Hamas and the Jewish state.
The army said "a terrorist squad shot" the soldier on the border with southern Gaza, without naming him.
Three Hamas fighters were killed as Israeli forces unleashed a wave of deadly strikes across the Gaza Strip, targeting 60 sites in three Hamas battalion compounds, according to the Israeli military and Palestinian health ministry.
"The targets included weapon manufacturing sites, a shaft to a tunnel network, a factory used for underground infrastructure manufacturing, a UAV warehouse, military operations room, training facilities, and observation posts," the IDF statement said.
Another Palestinian, 27-year-old Mohammed Badwan, was shot dead by Israeli troops during demonstrations along the border around the same time the soldier was shot.
Hamas also launched three rockets at Israel, two of which were shot down by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has raised the threat of a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip if Hamas does not stop the kites and balloons being launched.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on Israel and Hamas to avoid "another devastating conflict."
Following the announcement of a ceasefire overnight, the IDF announced that Israel's Zikim beach near the border with Gaza was reopened to the public and that southern communities have been instructed to return to routine with no special security directives.
AFP contributed to this report.
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