Israeli forces and Hamas exchanged rocket fire on Monday night amid fears of a new conflict in Gaza.
Israeli forces carried out strikes against what they called “Hamas terror targets” across the Gaza Strip, after an earlier rocket attack that destroyed a family home and wounded seven people in a neighbourhood north of Tel Aviv. The army also said it was reinforcing troops along the Gaza border and calling up reserves.
The targets of the Israeli raids on Gaza included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and a five-storey building in central Gaza City it said was a Hamas interior security office.
Militants in Gaza then fired at least 10 rockets towards the southern Israeli town of Sderot, but no Israeli casualties were reported as a result of that attack.
At 10pm on Monday, Hamas announced that a cease-fire had been brokered by Egyptian mediators. But shortly after, renewed rocket fire could be heard in Gaza, setting off air-raid sirens in southern Israel. Hamas’s leadership went into hiding after the first rocket attack, anticipating the Israeli response. The Gaza health ministry said five people were wounded by the airstrikes.
The fighting broke out while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in Washington to meeting Donald Trump. After receiving emphatic backing from Trump at the White House, Netanyahu announced he was cutting short his US trip to take command of operations.
“Israel will not tolerate this. I will not tolerate it,” Netanyahu said during his White House appearance. “As we speak, Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression.”
Trump described the Hamas rocket attack as “horrific” and added: “The US recognises Israel’s absolute right to defend itself.”
The clashes come at the height of a tight election before the Israeli vote on 9 April. Hamas is also under intense political pressure, with Gaza’s economy squeezed by an Israeli and Egyptian embargo, and sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.
Hamas and Israel have fought three conflicts in the past decade, and battled in dozens of minor flare-ups since the last one in 2014. With little to show for any previous violence, neither side has expressed interest in full-fledged war.
However, the Monday morning missile strike obliterated the home of a British-Israeli family and comes during a period of heightened tension in Israel and the Palestinian territories. With a general election two weeks away, Netanyahu is under pressure from political opponents to hit back hard against militants, even as he has been counselled by military advisers of the futility of a fresh conflict.
With opinion polls showing Netanyahu running neck and neck with his main opponent, Benny Gantz, the Israeli leader has sought to dismiss him as a “leftist” who is weak on security issues.
Separately, this weekend marks the anniversary of a year-long protest movement along Israel’s frontier that its troops have responded to with lethal force, killing more than 180 people and shooting 6,000 others. Hamas, which backs the rallies, is expected to call for thousands to attend, while Israel has said it will continue its live fire policy against what it calls “violent riots”.
Those protests were intended, in part, to pressure Israel and Egypt to lighten a punishing decade-long blockade on the 140 sq mile territory that has led to a humanitarian crisis and virtually imprisoned much of the population. But neither Israel nor Egypt have significantly changed their policy.
Meanwhile, Hamas faces its own internal dissent against recent tax hikes and dire living conditions, and has forcefully suppressed local demonstrations during the past week.
An Israeli military spokesperson said Monday’s rocket had a range of 75 miles, making it one of the farthest strikes ever carried out by militants in Gaza.
“I have a simple message for Israel’s enemies,” Netanyahu said. “We will do whatever we must to to defend our people, and defend our state. After this meeting I will return home ahead of schedule, to lead the people of Israel, and the soldiers of Israel.”
As a result of Netanyahu’s early return home, a dinner with Trump was cancelled as well as Netanyahu’s scheduled address to Aipac, the pro-Israel US lobby group.
In an apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation, a Hamas official, speaking to the Agence France-Presse news agency on condition of anonymity, denied the group was behind the rocket launch, and even suggested the projectile was automatically fired by mistake following “bad weather”.
The prime minister’s visit to Washington had been seen as an attempt to highlight his close and fruitful relationship with Trump before the election. Trump on Monday signed a proclamation formally recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
Netanyahu said it was a “truly a historic day”, that “translates our military victory into a diplomatic victory”. He said that the Golan was “invaluable to our defences” and claimed that Israel had taken the territory “in a just war of self-defence”. He added: “The Jewish people have roots in the Golan that go back thousands of years.”
Trump said: “This was a long time in the making. It should have taken place many decades ago.”
The Syrian foreign ministry called the US proclamation a “blatant aggression” on its own sovereignty and territorial integrity. The ministry said the US move represents the “highest level of contempt for international legitimacy”.