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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel and Islamic Jihad agree to cease-fire after 5 days of violence

Standing amid the rubble of a building hit by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip, on Saturday.

By Isabel Kershner

Israel and militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad agreed to a cease-fire Saturday, according to Egyptian negotiators, ending five days of violence in which 35 people were killed.

Egyptian officials said representatives from Israel and Islamic Jihad, an Islamist group based in Gaza, had agreed to suspend fighting. The sides confirmed that a cease-fire had been reached, but exchanges of fire continued for at least 30 minutes after the deal was to go into effect at 10 p.m. local time.

According to local Arabic news outlets, the sides mutually agreed to stop firing on civilians and destroying homes. But a Western diplomat with knowledge of the talks said the cease-fire came without conditions — as Israel had demanded — and was based on the principle of calm being answered with calm.

The five days of fighting, the longest stretch of cross-border violence between Israel and the group in recent years, remained relatively contained. Islamic Jihad, a small militant group backed by Iran, failed to draw in Hamas — the more powerful Islamic militant organization that controls Gaza — or any other major faction. The Islamic Jihad fighters, alone on the battlefield, suffered crushing blows.

Some experts attributed the stamina of Islamic Jihad — which Israel, the United States and many other Western countries classify as a terrorist organization — to the fact that, unlike Hamas, the group does not bear any responsibility for Gaza’s largely impoverished population of more than 2 million people. Instead, it is focused only on its long-term goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic state.

“It exists just for one purpose: to fight and ‘liberate’ the country,” Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian expert in national security based in East Jerusalem, said of Islamic Jihad.

“They have no ministerial positions or parliamentary seats to keep and no privileges other than to die” he said, adding that the group had gained the respect of many Palestinians, who sympathize with the Gazans living under a strict land, air and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

Israel also maintained that Iran, Islamic Jihad’s patron, had been setting the agenda while the group’s leaders live in exile. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, chief spokesperson for the Israeli military, said this past week that the group’s leaders, who were “living in hotels in Beirut and Damascus and driving Mercedes” while on the Iranian payroll were “OK with Gaza bleeding.”

Previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad — in April, this past August and November 2019 — were all over in about 50 hours or less.

But in a television interview in October, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in exile, said the group had made a “strategic mistake” two months earlier in agreeing to a cease-fire after 50 hours, under local and regional pressure. He said they could have continued fighting and achieved “concrete results on the ground.”

This time, Israel argued it was ready for a cease-fire with no preconditions but said it was ready to continue with its offensive. For its part, Islamic Jihad cited “great loyal popular support” Saturday and said that “the resistance has prepared itself for months of confrontation.”

Two significant events on the calendar in the coming week had the potential to draw broader Arab support for the group’s cause.

Today, Palestinians and their supporters will mark the 75th anniversary of the so-called Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled or were expelled from their homes in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Then, later in the week, tens of thousands of Israeli nationalists are expected to march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City in an annual parade commemorating Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

After firing rockets toward Jerusalem on Friday, Dawoud Shehab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad, told a local Arabic news outlet, “The battle is approaching the time of the flag march — that is what spurs us on to continue.”

The warring sides had traded fire Saturday before the agreement took hold. The Israeli military said it had struck mortar-shell-launching and rocket-launching sites belonging to Islamic Jihad as well as what it described as two of the group’s command centers located in residential homes. And sirens continuously sounded in southern and central Israel, warning of barrages of incoming projectiles including in the hour before the cease-fire was expected to come into effect.

Over the past five days, Islamic Jihad fired more than 1,200 rockets and mortar rounds toward Israel, and Israel struck more than 370 targets affiliated with the group in Gaza, according to data released by the military. Israeli authorities also said the group had fired dozens of mortar shells toward areas near the border crossings between Israel and Gaza, preventing their opening for the passage of most people and goods.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health has reported at least 33 people killed in Gaza, many of them civilians, since the campaign began and more than 100 injured. In Israel, an older woman was killed Thursday by a rocket launched from Gaza that struck an apartment block in central Israel. Israel’s ambulance service reported eight people injured by shrapnel and debris, including three who it said were wounded by a rocket fired into southern Israel on Saturday, two of them severely. Two of the three were Palestinian workers from Gaza. One of the workers from Gaza subsequently died at the hospital.

Israeli officials said the decision to launch the offensive against leaders of Islamic Jihad was made May 2, the day the group fired more than 100 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel after the death in Israeli custody of a Palestinian hunger striker, Khader Adnan, who was protesting his detention. Adnan was an Islamic Jihad leader from the occupied West Bank. That night, Israel carried out some initial airstrikes in Gaza that killed a man.

Israeli officials said the campaign that began Tuesday was aimed at weakening Islamic Jihad, an objective they achieved in the first seconds of the campaign, and restoring stability to the area. The opening strikes killed three of Islamic Jihad’s top commanders and 10 civilians, including children, according to Palestinian health officials. Three more of the group’s key commanders were killed in subsequent strikes this past week.

The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said Saturday that Islamic Jihad’s continued fire had enabled Israel “to continue to make further achievements.”

The United States has backed Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket fire by Islamic Jihad, while also stressing the urgency of reaching a cease-fire agreement.

Islamic Jihad at first presented several conditions for a cease-fire, including an Israeli commitment to halt assassinations; the release of Adnan’s body for burial; and the cancellation of the Jerusalem flag parade — conditions that Israel refused.

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