Israel, Hamas trade blows as Gaza tensions simmer

GAZA/JERUSALEM, March 26 (Reuters) - Gaza militants fired
rockets into southern Israel and Israeli aircraft carried out
strikes in the Hamas-ruled territory overnight Tuesday, though
the level of violence appeared to abate after Palestinians said
a ceasefire had been reached.

After a day of intense cross-border fighting, Palestinian
officials said Egypt had mediated a truce late on Monday. The
respite didn't last long, however.

Rocket sirens continued sounding in Israeli towns near the
border, sending residents running for shelter. The military,
which amassed extra troops and tanks along the border, said it
struck a Hamas compound and outposts in response.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The latest round of violence began early Monday when seven
Israelis were wounded near Tel Aviv when a house was destroyed
by a rocket attack. Hours later Israel carried out a wave of
retaliatory strikes, wounding five Palestinians.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, and
smaller Palestinian factions put out a late-night statement that
Egypt had mediated a ceasefire. Israeli officials did not
comment on whether a truce had been reached.

Israel remained on high alert, with schools near the border
kept closed and residents instructed to stay near bomb shelters.

The military said in a statement it remained "prepared for
various scenarios."

The escalation came just two weeks before an election in
which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his
political life after a decade in power, campaigning on a tough
line against Palestinian militants.

Beset by corruption scandals, he faces a strong challenge
from a centrist coalition led by a top general.

Netanyahu cut short a visit to the United States, saying he
would fly home right after meeting President Donald Trump.

"Israel will not tolerate this. I will not tolerate this,"
Netanyahu said. "And as we speak... Israel is responding
forcefully to this wanton aggression."

Trump told reporters with Netanyahu at his side that Israel
has the "absolute right" to defend itself.

Dozens of explosions had rocked the Palestinian coastal
enclave of Gaza on Monday and ambulance sirens echoed in the
mostly empty streets. In one neighborhood, people rushed to buy
bread in anticipation of a long escalation. The office of Hamas
chief Ismail Haniyeh was one of the initial targets hit,
although he was likely to have been evacuated in advance.

Gaza militants fired barrages of rockets into Israel late
into the night. Some were shot down by Israeli defenses and
others landed in empty areas.

Israel has waged three wars on Gaza since Hamas took control
of the territory in 2007. Israeli air strikes in retaliation for
rockets from Gaza are a frequent occurrence, but Israel's swift
mobilization of extra troops to the border area was unusual.

The two sides have managed to avert all-out war for five
years, most recently with the help of Egyptian mediation after a
major escalation in November last year.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ran Tzabari and Ari
Rabinovitch; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)