Defense official: Hamas agreed to halt rockets, balloons; Israel ends sanctions

Palestinian youths preparing incendiary balloons to send across the border into southern Israel. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Israel and the Hamas terror group appeared to reach a ceasefire agreement on Thursday night, following weeks of tension and unrest along the Gaza border.

An Israeli defense official told reporters that Hamas had “sent messages to Israel that they’d decided unilaterally to stop launching balloons and rocket fire at Israel.”

In exchange, Israel would end the retaliatory sanctions it put in place against Palestinians in the Strip, specifically the revocation of some 500 permits allowing businessmen out of Gaza and a restriction of the fishing zone to 10 nautical miles from the usual 15.

The past several weeks have seen a return of balloon-borne explosives from Gaza into Israel, with dozens of such devices being launched each day in some cases, as well as rocket and mortar fire from the Strip.

“Tonight and the coming weekend will serve as a test of stability,” the Israeli defense official said in a statement.

The apparent breakthrough came after the Egyptian military and United Nations intervened this week, sending in delegations on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.

The Lebanese pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”

The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm does not resume.

This week, Israeli politicians publicly threatened a harsh military response if attacks from the Gaza Strip continued.

“I want to make this clear: We won’t accept any aggression from Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, we took out the top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and I suggest that Islamic Jihad and Hamas refresh their memories,” Netanyahu said, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.

“I won’t lay out in detail all our actions and plans in the media, but we’re prepared for crushing action against the terror groups in Gaza. Our actions are powerful, and they’re not finished yet, to put it mildly,” he said.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett similarly issued a warning to Hamas leaders in Gaza, warning that Israel would take “lethal action against them” if their “irresponsible behavior” didn’t cease.

“We won’t announce when or where. This action will be very different from those taken in the past. No one will be immune. Hamas faces a choice: choose life and economic prosperity, or choose terror and pay an unbearable price. Their actions will determine [which it will be],” he said.

No Israelis have been injured directly by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives. In response to the attacks, the IDF conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which reportedly have not injured Palestinians. However, last month, a group of three Palestinians armed with explosives crossed the security fence into southern Israel from Gaza and, once surrounded, attacked a group of IDF soldiers, who returned fire, killing the trio.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group was trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in the ceasefire negotiations.

Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and which Palestinian leaders have rejected.