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Israel and Islamic Jihad agree on cease-fire to end 5 days of fighting

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in the Gaza Strip agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire late Saturday, seeking to halt five days of intense fighting that killed 33 Palestinians, including at least 13 civilians. Two people in Israel were killed by rocket fire.

The tenuous cease-fire appeared to take effect just after 10 p.m., with a last-minute burst of rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes stretching several minutes past the deadline announced by Egypt. Late Saturday, Israel reported additional incoming fire and said it was again striking in Gaza. But the calm appeared to be quickly restored.

While the calm appeared to bring a sense of relief to Gaza’s more than 2 million people and hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had been largely confined to bomb shelters in recent days, the agreement did nothing to address the underlying issues that have fueled numerous rounds of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip over the years.

In Gaza, Islamic Jihad spokesman Tareq Selmi said Israel had agreed to halt its policy of targeted strikes on the group’s leaders. “Any stupidity or assassination by the occupation will be met with a response and the Zionist enemy bears the responsibility,” he said.

But in a statement thanking Egypt for its mediation efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's national security adviser, Tzachi Nanegbi, said that “quiet would be answered with quiet” and Israel would do “everything that it needs to in order to defend itself.”

Tensions could quickly resume next week when Israel holds a contentious march through a main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem's Old City.

Still, as the truce took hold, the deafening whooshes of outgoing rockets and booms of Israeli airstrikes were replaced by the honking of cars in Gaza. Streets that had been desolate in recent days quickly teemed with people reveling in the ceasefire, waving Palestinian flags and flashing victory signs from speeding vehicles. Amid the celebration, a fruit vendor used a loudspeaker, enthusiastically promoting his supply of bananas.

The latest violence erupted Tuesday when Israeli airstrikes killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders. Israel said the airstrikes were in response to a burst of rocket fire the previous week and that its attacks have been focused on Islamic Jihad targets. But residents in Gaza said homes of people uninvolved in fighting also had been struck.

At least 10 civilians, including women, young children and uninvolved neighbors were killed in those initial strikes, which drew regional condemnation.

Over the past few days, Israel has conducted more airstrikes, killing other senior Islamic Jihad commanders and destroying their command centers and rocket-launching sites. But the airstrikes showed no signs of stopping the rocket fire, prompting Islamic Jihad to declare victory.

Israel reported over 1,200 launches throughout the fighting, with some rockets reaching as far as the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. Israel said about a quarter of the rockets were misfired and landed in Gaza, while most of the rest were either intercepted or landed in open areas. But an 80-year-old woman and a Palestinian laborer who was working inside Israel were killed by rocket fire. A Palestinian human rights group said three people, including two children, were killed in Gaza by errant rockets.

It was the latest in a long series of battles between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the seaside territory in 2007. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars, and there have been numerous smaller flareups as well.

Saturday's deal did not address many of the many of the causes of the repeated fighting, including Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza, the large arsenals of weapons possessed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but Hamas subsequently overran the territory and expelled forces loyal to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza in what Israel says is a policy aimed at preventing Hamas from arming. The Palestinians and international rights groups say the policy, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, amount to collective punishment.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs semi-autonomous parts of the West Bank, said Gaza's main cargo crossing with Israel would open Sunday. Hamas’ government warned on Saturday that if the crossing doesn’t open, the lone power plant in Gaza will stop, further deepening a power crisis.

The more powerful Hamas has praised Islamic Jihad’s strikes but remained on the sidelines during the latest round of fighting, limiting the scope of the conflict. As the de facto government held responsible for the abysmal conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Hamas has recently tried to keep a lid on its conflict with Israel. Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, a more ideological and unruly militant group wedded to violence, has taken the lead in the past few rounds of fighting with Israel.

In a reminder of the combustible situation in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military raided the Balata refugee camp near the northern city of Nablus, sparking a firefight that killed two Palestinians. In a separate incident near the northern city of Jenin, Israeli police said they shot and killed a suspected Palestinian assailant who ran toward soldiers wielding a knife.

Israeli-Palestinian fighting has surged in the West Bank under Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Since the start of the year, 111 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press. In that time, 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

The truce could be further tested on Thursday when Israeli nationalists plan their annual “Jerusalem Day” march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. The march, meant to celebrate Israel's capture of the Old City and its Jewish holy sites in 1967, is a frequent source of friction and helped spark an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.

On Saturday, Palestinians in Gaza ventured out to assess the damage wrought by Israeli warplanes and salvage whatever they could from four destroyed homes in a densely populated neighborhood. Residents denied the army's claims that it had attacked Islamic Jihad targets.

“We have no rocket launching pads at all. This is a residential area,” said Awni Obaid, beside the debris of what was his three-story house in the central town of Deir al-Balah.

The nearby house of his relative, Jehad Obaid, was also leveled.

“I felt like vomiting because of the dust,” he said. "This is extraordinary hatred. They claim they don’t strike at children, but what we see is craziness, destruction.”

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Federman reported from Jerusalem.