Israel and Hamas agreed late Wednesday to a five-day extension of a cease-fire to allow further talks on a longer lasting truce in Gaza, but renewed rocket fire triggered fresh Israeli airstrikes, threatening the lull.
The agreement, reached under heavy pressure from Egyptian mediators, was announced in Cairo minutes before the expiration of a 72-hour cease-fire at midnight.
“In the last minutes, agreement was reached to extend the cease-fire for another five days, beginning at midnight tonight and ending on Monday,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of a delegation of Palestinian factions negotiating indirectly with an Israeli team.
The Israeli military said that six rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza before midnight, and that in response it had carried out airstrikes “targeting terror sites across the Gaza Strip.”
Militants in Gaza fired back, and two more rockets landed in southern Israel, the army said. No casualties were reported.
In the hours before the agreement to extend the cease-fire, President Barack Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of efforts to prod both sides toward an accord.
“The president reaffirmed the United States’ support for Egypt’s mediation efforts and underscored the importance of achieving a sustainable outcome that ensures Israel’s security and addresses Gaza’s humanitarian crisis,” the White House said in a statement.
Al-Ahmad, a representative of the mainstream Fatah faction, said that progress had been made in negotiations on Hamas’ main demand: lifting a blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt.
However Izzat al-Risheq, a Hamas negotiator, told the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera that significant gaps remained, and that delegates from the group would travel to Qatar for consultations with the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal.
Hamas wants the removal of border closures that have crippled the economy of the Gaza Strip, including opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to movement of people and goods, construction of a seaport, and allowing Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007 after a brief civil war with the mainstream Fatah faction. Since then, travel out of the Gaza Strip through crossings to Egypt and Israel has been severely restricted. In recent months, Egypt shut smuggling tunnels under its border with Gaza that had served as a supply line for vital goods and a major source of tax revenue for Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave.
Hamas also seeks the release of former prisoners rearrested by Israel in a crackdown on the Islamist group in the West Bank in June after the kidnapping and slaying of three Israeli teenagers in the territory. Hamas did not claim responsibility for the abduction.
It was unclear to what extent Israel and Egypt had agreed to any of those demands, and how much progress had been made toward an accord on a durable truce. But the agreement to extend the temporary cease-fire suggested that leaders on both sides were under public pressure to maintain calm.
An Israeli offensive against Hamas, launched on July 8, has killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. The Israeli army lost 64 soldiers, and three civilians were killed in Israel by rocket strikes.