GAZA/JERUSALEM, May 6 (Reuters) - A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.
The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel, and Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians.
Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.
Israeli officials did not comment on whether a truce had been reached. But the military said that protective restrictions on residents of southern Israel that were ordered when the fighting began were being lifted.
Israel rarely acknowledges having reached ceasefires with the militant groups in Gaza whom it designates as terrorist organizations.
Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles - over 150 of them intercepted - had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it had shelled or carried out air strikes on about 320 targets belonging to Gaza militant groups.
The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.
Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.
The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across the fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.
This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv - the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March - next week.
Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.
Israel accused Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran, of trying to ignite conflict.
One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.
“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.
Yaacov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, may have been behind Islamic Jihad’s moves, with wider goals in mind.
During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
“This is a matter of strategic importance for Iran, as it is for us,” said Amidror, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“The way to prevent us from achieving our goal in Syria, according to Iran, is for us to get mired in a big operation in Gaza. Clearly that would reduce our capacity to act in Syria.”
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.