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Sunday March 29th, 2020 8:05AM

Israel army lifts restrictions, signals cease-fire with Gaza

By The Associated Press
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JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military lifted protective restrictions on residents in southern Israel on Monday, while the Hamas militant group's radio station in Gaza reported a cease-fire, signaling a deal had been reached to end the deadliest fighting between the two sides since a 2014 war.

The escalation had killed 23 on the Gaza side, both militants and civilians, and on the Israeli side, four civilians were killed from incoming fire.

There was no official cease-fire announcement from either side, but the intense fighting over the past two days appeared to come to a sudden halt in the early morning hours and residents on both sides went back to their daily routines.

In announcing its decision, the Israeli military said that as of 7 a.m., "all protective restrictions in the home front will be lifted."

Schools and roads had been closed, and residents had been encouraged to remain indoors and near bomb shelters as intense rocket fire pounded the area, threatening to devolve into all-out war.

In Gaza, Hamas' Al-Aqsa radio station had a short item saying a cease-fire had been reached. However, neither the strip's Hamas rulers nor the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group that was the driving force behind the recent fire from Gaza issued any formal announcement.

Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought three wars and numerous smaller battles since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

In the latest fighting, which erupted over the weekend, Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, while the Israeli military responded with airstrikes on some 250 militant targets inside Gaza, including weapons storage, attack tunnels and rocket launching and production facilities.

It also deployed tanks and infantry forces to the Gaza frontier, and put another brigade on standby. Buildings were toppled and a Hamas commander involved in transferring Iranian funds to the group was killed in an airstrike, in an apparent return to Israel's policy of "targeting killing" of militant leaders.

Palestinian medical officials reported 23 deaths, including at least nine militants as well as two pregnant women and two babies. The four Israeli civilians killed were the first Israeli fatalities from rocket attacks since the 50-day war in 2014. One was killed when his vehicle was hit by a Kornet anti-tank missile near the Gaza border.

Egyptian mediators had been working with the U.N. to broker a cease-fire. Under past Egyptian-brokered deals, Israel has agreed to ease its joint crippling blockade of Gaza with Egypt in exchange for a halt to rocket fire.

The latest fighting broke out after Palestinian militants accused Israel of not honoring an earlier cease-fire deal from March, and opened fire on soldiers on the Israeli side of the Gaza border.

The terms of the latest deal were not known, but recent cease-fires have been short-lived.

In weary communities in southern Israel, there was criticism that the latest round of fighting had ended without tangible results — and no hope that it would not recur soon.

"I think that a cease-fire at this moment is a terrible mistake. I think that when we have the upper hand, we need once and for all to finish the terror because this will repeat itself and will not stop," said Jacque Mendel, a resident of the coastal city of Ashdod, where a man was killed in his car by a rocket Sunday night.

Despite its fierce response, Israel appears to have little appetite for another prolonged conflict. Later this week, the country marks Memorial Day, one of the most solemn days of the year, followed by the festive Independence Day. Next week, Israel is to host the popular Eurovision song contest and the backdrop of fighting would have likely overshadowed the occasions and deterred foreign tourists.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently secured re-election in part thanks to the votes of the rocket-battered residents along the Gaza Strip frontier, has traditionally been cautious in his handling of Gaza, for fear of sparking an open-ended war with no clear endgame. But he is under pressure from the same electorate to end its anguish and his perspective coalition partners appear to favor a more hard-line agenda on Gaza this time.

Even within his own ruling Likud Party, Netanyahu faced unusual criticism for not going further to quash Gaza militants.

"A cease-fire, in the circumstances reached, bears no achievements for Israel," Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar wrote of Twitter. "The timeframes between these violent attacks on Israel and its citizens are getting shorter and the terror groups in Gaza are getting stronger between them. The campaign has not been prevented, just delayed."

Benny Gantz, Israel's emerging opposition leader, also criticized Netanyahu, saying the violence was the result of Israel losing it deterrence. Ending the current round amounted to "another surrender to the extortion of Hamas and the terror organizations," Gantz said.

In Gaza, a year of Hamas-led protests along the Israeli frontier against the blockade that has ravaged the economy has yielded no tangible benefits. In March, Hamas faced several days of street protests over the dire conditions.

Still, Hamas' leader Ismail Haniyeh said late Sunday that the militant group was "not interested in a new war," and the start on Monday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan likely lessened motivation for battle.

___

Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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