A wary calm returned to Gaza and southern Israel on Tuesday after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire brought an end to hours of intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas.
Israeli jets struck targets throughout Gaza on Monday night, including the offices of the Islamist group’s leader, while Hamas and other Palestinian factions fired rockets at Israeli towns and cities.
No fatalities were reported on either side although several people were injured in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
The escalation was sparked by Hamas firing a rocket that wounded several members of a British-Israeli family on Monday morning.
At around 10pm on Monday, Egyptian mediators managed to broker a ceasefire between the two sides, as they have done during several other flare-ups of violence in recent months.
The ceasefire took several hours to take hold and airstrikes and rocket fire continued in the early hours of Tuesday. Millions of civilians on both sides spent the night in fear as the fighting continued.
However, by mid-morning the situation was tense but calm. Palestinian children went to school in Gaza as usual but school was cancelled for Israeli children in several districts in the country’s south.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, cut short a trip to Washington to return to Israel to manage the situation. Mr Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s defence minister, was due to arrive in Israel in the afternoon and hold meetings with security chiefs.
“We have responded very, very forcefully,” Mr Netanyahu said before departing Washington.
“Hamas needs to know that we will not hesitate to go in and take all necessary steps – regardless of anything, any date, other than Israel’s security needs.”
The Israeli leader is seeking re-election for a fifth term in office when Israelis go to the polls on April 9. He is under pressure from political opponents on both the Centre and the Right to strike forcefully against Hamas.
Hamas hailed Monday night’s violence as a victory for its cause. “Gaza and the resistance in Gaza are unbreakable. The will of Gaza will always defeat the occupation; Gaza will break the siege and live free and in dignity,” a spokesman said.
Hamas is under intense pressure within Gaza to raise living standards and deal with horrendous economic conditions in the strip, where unemployment is at around 50 per cent.
Anti-Hamas protesters took to the streets last week under the slogan “We Want To Live”. Hamas responded with a major crackdown and arrested dozens of people.
Egypt and the UN have been trying to broker a long-term deal which would see Hamas promise to stop attacks on Israel in return for Israel lifting its crushing 12-year blockade on Gaza.
However, the negotiations have yielded few results and Hamas is believed to be trying to inject fresh urgency into the talks by firing rockets while at the same time avoiding a full-blown war.