Israel resumes strikes on Gaza after rocket fire from militants

Israel said it resumed strikes on targets linked to the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza after members of the militant group fired a barrage of rockets into Israel.

Unofficial ceasefire between Israel, Islamic Jihad group appears to break down

Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel, as seen from the Israeli city of Ashkelon. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Israel said it resumed strikes on targets linked to the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza after members of the militant group fired a barrage of rockets into Israel.

The announcement by the Israeli military early Friday morning local time indicated that an unofficial ceasefire declared nearly 24 hours earlier was breaking down.

The renewed rocket fire from Gaza came late Thursday as supporters of the militant group held sporadic protests to express anger at the truce, which went into effect that morning.

The Israeli military said two projectiles were fired from Gaza and both were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system.

The truce came after two days of fighting triggered by the targeted killing of a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza. The Iran-backed group is pledged to Israel's destruction.

The fighting killed at least 34 Palestinians, including 16 civilians, according to rights groups. Islamic Jihad militants fired some 450 projectiles toward Israel, paralyzing parts of the country; most landing in open areas or were intercepted.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, appears to have stayed out of the fighting.

Israel had hailed the Gaza operation as a victory, defending its policy of targeting militants in their homes despite civilian deaths, and vowed to continue the tactic. Islamic Jihad said it had succeeded in getting Israel to agree to a ceasefire based on several demands, including a halt to Israeli targeted killings of the group's leaders.

Islamic Jihad spokesperson Musab al-Berim said the Egyptian-brokered deal went into effect early in the morning. An Israeli military spokesperson tweeted the Gaza operation "is over." Some restrictions were lifted on residents of southern Israel and traffic returned to the streets of the Palestinian coastal territory.

Targeted killing

The fighting first erupted early Tuesday after Israel killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militant group who was said to be behind a string of rocket attacks and who Israel said was believed to be planning a cross-border infiltration.

The rare targeted killing by Israel sparked the heaviest fighting with Gaza militants since May. Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, while Israel responded with scores of airstrikes.

Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group, much larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, stayed out of the latest escalation — an indication it would be brief.

Palestinian women gather around the remains of a house hit in an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel typically does not publicly acknowledge deals with militant groups, and on Thursday officials said the only unwritten agreement was that Israel would hold fire so long as Islamic Jihad did. Military spokesperson listed a series of accomplishments after the two-day spasm of violence, including the killing of some 25 militants in targeted strikes.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the policy had "proved itself" and would continue. "Everyone who was a top military official, who was set to carry out and was involved in terror or rocket firing against Israel was eliminated," he told Israeli Army Radio. "And we intend to continue with this."

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett warned Gaza militants they were not safe anywhere.

"A terrorist who tries to harm Israeli citizens will not be able to sleep soundly, not in his home and not in his bed and not in any hiding place," he said.

Critics of Israel's contentious policy say it amounts to extrajudicial killings that endanger civilians.

But Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesperson, defended the attacks on militants' private homes, saying Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons, making them legitimate targets.

The rocket fire crippled life across southern Israel and on Tuesday, also in the country's heartland in and around Tel Aviv, as non-stop air-raid sirens cancelled schools and forced people indoors. At least three people were lightly wounded from shrapnel or shattered glass. Most rockets landed in open areas or were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Israel considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which both seek its destruction, to be terrorist groups.

The killing of Islamic Jihad's Bahaa Abu el-Atta on Tuesday coincided with a strike in the Syrian capital of Damascus that targeted another Islamic Jihad commander. Israel hasn't claimed responsibility for that attack and the commander was not killed, but the strikes stepped up Israel's regional conflict with Iran and its proxies.

Israel often strikes Iranian interests in Syria and the fresh fighting looked to awaken Israel's increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region.

Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money. Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has some of its leadership in Beirut and in Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.

As Iran's proxy in Gaza, the group is key to Tehran's strategy of keeping pressure on Israel on all fronts.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel's northern neighbour, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.

Caretaker government

The violence came at a touchy time in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two elections ended inconclusively and after he failed twice to form a governing coalition.

His main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, is now trying to cobble together a government, but his chances appear slim. If he fails by next week, Israel could be on its way to an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum typically rally behind the government during a military operation, and Netanyahu has briefed Gantz before and during the violence, setting off speculation the conflagration may succeed to push the men toward an agreement.

The escalation also comes ahead of an expected indictment against Netanyahu for a number of corruption allegations.