Five rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel early Sunday, the Israeli military announced, following a day of mass protests that saw Israeli troops kill four Palestinians near the territory’s border.
The rocket attack threatened to undermine Egyptian-mediated efforts to cement a deal that the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers hope will ease a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockage of the crowded territory.
No casualties were reported and no Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the rockets, though they appeared to have been fired in retaliation for the deaths of the protesters.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in the Gaza Strip on Saturday to mark the anniversary of their mass protests along the Israeli border.
Most demonstrators kept their distance from the border, though small crowds of activists approached the perimeter fence and threw stones and explosives toward Israeli troops on the other side. The forces responded with tear gas and opened fire, killing four Palestinians and wounding 64.
Hamas had pledged to keep the crowds a safe distance from the fence to avoid inflaming the political atmosphere during negotiations on a possible easing of the blockade.
Hamas officials say that Israel is offering a package of economic incentives in exchange for calm along the volatile border.
Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said the group had received “positive signs” from the Egyptians. He added that the Egyptian team was to return to Israel on Sunday to continue the talks. “We will continue our marches until all our goals are achieved,” he said.
Saturday’s protest came at a sensitive time, with Israel and Hamas, bitter enemies that have fought three wars and dozens of smaller skirmishes, both having a strong interest in keeping things quiet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of ex-army chiefs who have criticized what they say is his failed Gaza policy. With a lack of alternatives, Netanyahu has been forced at times to rely on Hamas to maintain stability along Israel’s volatile southern front.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Netanyahu needs to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, without seeming to make concessions to Hamas. Netanyahu took heavy criticism this week for what was seen as a soft response to renewed rocket fire out of Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, faces growing unrest in Gaza as a result of worsening conditions after more than a decade of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. The two countries imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
The blockade has helped drive unemployment over 50 percent, led to chronic power outages and made it extremely difficult for Gazans to travel out of the territory.