Last updated: 15 March, 2012

Israel and Palestinians trade fire but fragile truce holding

Palestinian militants fired five rockets at Israel on Thursday, but a fragile truce between the two sides that ended four days of violence appeared still to be largely holding.

A Grad rocket fired at the southern Israeli city of Ashdod from the Gaza Strip on Thursday evening was intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system, media reported.

Two more rockets were fired at the same southern region during the night, after two had been fired there earlier in the day. None caused any casualties or damage.

“Currently it is quiet,” Israeli army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters late in the afternoon.

She said that since the outbreak of the latest round of cross-border violence on Friday, Palestinians had fired 310 rockets at Israel of which “170 rockets or so” struck the Jewish state, several fell short inside Gaza and 60 were destroyed by Iron Dome.

A chain of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket salvoes started when Israel killed Zuhair al-Qaisi, head of the radical Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees, prompting other militant groups to fire rockets over the border.

The army said Qaisi had planned a deadly attack last August — when militants sneaked across the border from the Sinai Peninsula and killed eight Israelis — and accused him of planning a repeat attack “in the coming days.”

Those ambushes on Israeli cars and buses took place on a southern section of Route 12, a lonely stretch of road running along the border between Israel’s Negev desert and the Egyptian Sinai.

On Saturday, the army closed the road and Leibovich said it remained closed on Thursday, for fear an attack might go ahead despite Qaisi’s death.

“Route 12 is still closed due to the possibility that there might remain some factions who will try to make this kind of terror activity work eventually, even though we did target the main leader, who was in the very advanced stages of preparing this terror attack,” she said.

On Wednesday night, Israeli aircraft carried out two raids, one near Gaza City and another near the southern town of Khan Yunis, causing no casualties, Palestinian security officials said.

The Israeli military said the raids were in response to a rocket fired at Beersheva on Wednesday which was brought down by Iron Dome.

Many schools across southern Israel were again closed on Thursday as a safety precaution, after briefly reopening on Wednesday for the first time this week.

State-run television said that following Thursday’s attempt to hit Beersheva, the city’s schools would remain shut on Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the truce will be short-lived if the rocket fire continues.

He he linked the rocket fire from Gaza to tensions with Iran over its nuclear programme, which much of the West believes masks a weapons drive.

“What’s happening in Gaza is Iran. Where do the missiles come from? Iran. Where does the money come from? Iran. Who trains the terrorists? Iran. Who builds the infrastructure? Iran. And often who gives the orders? Iran.

“Gaza is an advance post for Iran,” he said.

“I hope that the whole world today understands that the terrorist organisations in Gaza — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — and also Hezbollah in Lebanon, are sheltered by the Iranian umbrella.

“Can you imagine what would happen if that umbrella was nuclear?”

Under the terms of the truce, mediated by Egypt, both Israel and militants from Islamic Jihad, who were responsible for most of the rocket attacks, have agreed to hold their fire.