The Israeli army accused the Syrian government and Iran on Saturday of ordering Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire dozens of rockets into southern Israel, and threatened to retaliate wherever it chose.
The barrage of rockets, which began late Friday and continued into Saturday morning, triggered extensive retaliatory strikes by Israeli aircraft against Gaza that risked escalating into a wider conflict.
Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group that launched the rockets, said on Saturday lunchtime it had agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel to cease hostilities.
The new flare-up came hours after six Palestinians died in renewed clashes on the Gaza-Israel border even as the territory’s Islamist rulers Hamas said Egypt was seeking to negotiate a return to calm.
“The rockets that were launched against Israel… we know that the orders, incentives were given from Damascus with the clear involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force,” Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told journalists, referring to the Guards’ foreign operations unit.
At least 39 rockets have been fired at southern Israel by the Islamic Jihad group since late Friday, with 17 of them intercepted by air defences and the rest hitting open ground, the army said.
Israeli aircraft carried out extensive retaliatory strikes, targeting approximately 90 sites belonging to the territory’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
It also struck eight Islamic Jihad targets, the army said.
– Retaliation against Syria, Iran –
Conricus said that Israel held Hamas responsible for the fire, even though it was carried out by Islamic Jihad at the behest of Syria and its ally Iran.
“We hold Hamas responsible for everything coming from Gaza,” he said.
Conricus said Israel would also retaliate against the Syrian government and Iran’s Quds Force, and would choose where.
“Part of the address by which we will deal with this fire is also in Damascus and the Quds Force,” he said. “Our response is not limited geographically.”
The armed wing of Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, initially threatened to continue and expand its rocket fire.
But on Saturday afternoon, the group’s spokesman announced an immediate ceasefire, saying Egypt had negotiated a truce with Israel.
“A comprehensive ceasefire agreement was reached which came into force immediately in exchange for a halt to the Israeli aggression,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Dawoud Shihab told AFP.
Israeli security officials refused to comment on any truce, but confirmed there had been no fire from either side since the Islamic Jihad announcement.
– Truce deal progress –
The biggest rocket barrage from Gaza in months came despite talk of progress towards an Egyptian-brokered deal to end months of often violent protests along the border in return for an easing of Israel’s crippling 11-year blockade.
On Sunday, Israel reopened the people and goods border crossings with Gaza and on Wednesday renewed the flow of Qatar-funded fuel to the Palestinian enclave, in an indication of its confidence that Hamas would rein in violence.
The Friday border marches however drew 16,000 protesters, some of them clashing with Israeli soldiers.
Five Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli fire in separate incidents along the border fence, the Gaza health ministry said.
A sixth died when a hand grenade he was holding exploded accidentally, witnesses said.
There were no reports of deaths in Gaza as a result of the Israeli air strikes, which continued until late Saturday morning.
In Gaza City, a four-storey building was completely destroyed, AFP correspondents reported.
The Israeli army said it was a major headquarters of Hamas.
– ‘Embarrasses Hamas’ –
Israel has fought three wars since 2008 with Hamas and its allies, including Islamic Jihad, and Egypt and the United Nations have been leading diplomatic efforts to avert a fourth.
Saleh an-Nami, a political analyst in Gaza, said the rocket fire would weaken Hamas’s efforts to reach a long-term truce and showed it was unable to impose its position on other factions.
“It embarrasses Hamas in front of regional and global mediators that are intervening to achieve a truce,” he told AFP.
Palestinians have gathered for protests along the border at least weekly since March 30.
At least 213 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since the protests began, according to figures collated by AFP.
The majority have died during protests, while smaller numbers have been killed by air strikes or tank fire.
One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper over the same period.
The protesters are calling to be allowed to return to lands their families fled or were expelled from in the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation.
They are also protesting against the Israeli blockade.