Israel airstrikes: Hamas claims Egypt-brokered ceasefire in Gaza after rocket attack retaliation

Bel Trew, Peter Stubley
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Israel airstrikes: Hamas claims Egypt-brokered ceasefire in Gaza after rocket attack retaliation

Israeli aircraft pounded targets across Gaza Monday night in retaliation for a long-range rocket attack fired that injured seven people, including a six-month-old baby, hours earlier in the centre of the country.

The Israeli military said it hit three key buildings used by Hamas, the militant group that runs the besieged strip and was purportedly behind the earlier rocket-fire. Seven Palestinians were wounded in the strikes, according to Gaza's health ministry.

Hamas later declared that Egypt had successfully brokered a ceasefire that would come into effect 10pm local time but it was not confirmed by Israel, and raids were still recorded across the Strip.

The Israeli army said one of the main targets in Gaza was the office of Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's political leader.

Palestinian media outlets shared footage of a fiery explosion and rising smoke that reportedly showed the moment the office was hit in Gaza City's Rimal district.

The Israeli army said they also struck a three-storey building in the Tzabra neighbourhood that was “a secret headquarters of the Hamas” and a five-storey block used for the group's interior security.

Fighting groups in the Strip fired back at southern Israel where rocket sirens sounded in cities like Sderot and Ashkelon, sending civilians running for bomb shelters.

The strikes came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US President Donald Trump at the White House where the American leader signed a controversial declaration recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.

At a joint press conference, Mr Netanyahu described the earlier rocket attack as “criminal” and said: “Israel will not tolerate this. I will not tolerate it.”

“As we speak,” he added, “Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression.”

The US president said Israel had the “absolute right” to defend itself, shortly before signing the declaration which parts with decades of US policy over the Golan.

Mr Netanyahu responded: “Mr President, Israel has never had a better friend than you.”

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has declared it will respond if Israel retaliates too forcefully.

The group’s leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a written statement that the Palestinian people “will not surrender” and its militant factions “will deter the enemy if it exceeds the red lines”.

Police and security officers were evacuated and hospitals in Gaza were on alert in anticipation of the Israeli airstrikes.

Residents of Gaza told The Independent families were rushing out to purchase supplies fearing protracted conflict.

"People are terrified this will develop into a long war and so are dashing out to by food. But otherwise the streets are emptying as we hear strikes in the background," one resident said.

However hours later Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that Egypt had brokered a ceasefire deal. Gaza's education ministry ordered schools to open as normal on Tuesday.

While there has been no claim of responsibility for the earlier rocket attack, military spokesperson Major Mika Lifshitz said the army had concluded that Hamas fired the rocket from a launchpad near Rafah, some 120km away.

It marked one of longest-range rockets armed factions in Gaza have fired at Israel in years.

The rocket destroyed a residential home in the agricultural town of Mishmeret, and the injured included a six-month-old baby, a two and half year old child, their parents and grandparents.

UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the attack on Israel was “completely unacceptable”.

He tweeted: “Appalled by terrorist attack from Gaza against civilians, including British-Israeli dual nationals. My thoughts are with all those affected.”

The UN said secretary-general Antonio Guterres is “gravely concerned” at the situation in Gaza and is urging Israel and Hamas “to exercise maximum restraint”.

Amnesty International also urged Israel to respect international humanitarian law in its response to the rocket attack.

“Attacks on civilians, and indiscriminate attacks, are never justified and a serious violation of international humanitarian law, said Saleh Higazi, deputy director for the Middle East.

“Israel has repeatedly displayed a chilling disregard for civilian life and carried out wide-scale deadly attacks in densely-populated civilian areas of Gaza in violation of international humanitarian law.

“There must be no repeat of the unlawful attacks that killed and injured thousands of civilians in Gaza, destroyed homes and devastated infrastructure during conflicts in previous years.

“We are calling on Hamas, Israel and all parties involved in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters