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Netanyahu due back in Israel after Gaza ‘ceasefire’


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference, with US Secretary of State, at his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. – Pompeo issued a thinly veiled jab at US Democrats over anti-Semitism, following controversial comments by a Muslim congresswoman over American support for Israel. (Photo by AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due back in Israel on Tuesday after cutting short a Washington trip as a ceasefire announced by Hamas to end another severe Gaza escalation failed to fully take hold.

After Hamas said Egypt had brokered a truce late Monday, further exchanges of fire occurred throughout the night before calm again returned at around 6:00 am (0400 GMT).

There have been no deaths on either side, but seven Israelis and seven Palestinians have been wounded in the flare-up at a highly sensitive time ahead of Israel’s April 9 elections.


Speaking before he boarded his plane back to Israel after meeting US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said he was prepared to take further action.

The prime minister is widely believed to want to avoid a fourth war in Gaza since 2008 with unpredictable consequences ahead of the elections, but he is also under heavy political pressure.

“Our response was very powerful — very, very powerful,” Netanyahu said of Israeli retaliation following a rare rocket strike near Tel Aviv.

“Hamas needs to know that we shall not hesitate to go in (to Gaza) and take all necessary steps.”

He said he would head straight to the defence ministry in Tel Aviv after arrival, expected in the afternoon.

In cutting short his visit, Netanyahu cancelled his planned address to pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual conference and dinner with Trump on Tuesday.

‘Clear the house’
Israel kept up air strikes on Gaza into Tuesday and Palestinian militants launched new rockets despite the ceasefire claim.

The Israeli army reported late-night mortar fire and 30 new rocket launches from Gaza, on top of 30 rockets detected earlier in the evening.

Israel struck around 15 fresh targets, including what the army said was a Hamas military compound and an Islamic Jihad position.

A security source in Gaza said there had been a total of around 80 Israeli strikes.

Some of the rockets fired at Israel were intercepted by air defences while others hit uninhabited areas, the army said.

A house in the southern Israeli town of Sderot was damaged by a rocket.

In Gaza, Raed al-Qahtawi, whose home was damaged in an Israeli strike on Hamas leader Ismail Haniya’s office, said he received a warning call from Hamas authorities beforehand.

“We were sitting in the house and then they called us and told us to clear the house immediately,” he said.

“We went to our neighbours. My aunt is disabled so we took her using a walker and after approximately 30 minutes they bombed the area.”

Schools and government offices were closed in Gaza on Tuesday, while schools in parts of southern Israel were also closed.

‘Wanton aggression’
The flare-up began early Monday with a rare long-distance rocket strike from Gaza that hit a house north of Tel Aviv, wounding seven Israelis.

Israel warned of a strong response, sending reinforcements to the Gaza area and announcing a limited call up of reservists.

It also closed its people and goods crossing with the blockaded strip and reduced the zone in the Mediterranean it allows for Palestinian fishermen.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes began around the same time Netanyahu met Trump in Washington, and the premier spoke from the White House of “responding forcefully to this wanton aggression”.

Israel targeted dozens of Hamas sites, including Haniya’s office, what it said was a secret intelligence building and a Hamas internal security building in Gaza City.

The coastal enclave was rocked by explosions and fireballs rose in the sky in Gaza City.

Following those strikes, militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets in response and air raid sirens wailed in southern Israel.

A joint statement from militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, took responsibility for those rockets.

Hamas then announced Egypt had brokered the ceasefire — as it has repeatedly in the past — but Israel did not confirm it.

Long-distance rocket
Israel’s army blamed Hamas for the rocket that hit the house on Monday morning in the community of Mishmeret, around 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Tel Aviv.

A Hamas official however denied the group was responsible for that rocket and indicated it may have been fired by accident or even due to “bad weather.”

The hospital that treated the wounded said the seven Israelis were injured lightly by burns and shrapnel, including three children.

If Israel and Hamas manage to implement the ceasefire announced Monday, more tensions are likely on the horizon.

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of protests and clashes along the Gaza-Israel border, and large demonstrations are expected for it.

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