JERUSALEM (AP) - Egyptian mediators rushed to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and Hamas’ supreme leader emerged from his hideout as an unofficial cease-fire between Israel and the Islamic militant group appeared to take hold.
The Egyptian delegation sought to cement the truce that ended two days of heavy fighting between the bitter enemies. They face a key test on Saturday, when Hamas is planning a mass demonstration to mark the one-year anniversary of weekly protests along the Israeli border.
In a sign that both sides had stepped back from a major conflagration, Hamas’ supreme leader Ismail Haniyeh made his first public appearance since violence with Israel erupted earlier this week. During times of fighting, Hamas leaders typically go underground, fearing assassination by Israel.
Standing before the rubble of his Gaza City office, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Monday, he declared that “the Israeli occupation got the message.”
Haniyeh urged Palestinians to come out in force to the Saturday demonstration. The Israeli military bolstered its forces along the Gaza frontier in advance.
Hamas has staged the protests in hopes of pressuring Israel and Egypt to ease a crippling blockade. The protests, however, have yielded few gains, and nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire.
Israel accuses Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover for attacks, and says it is defending its border against crowds that have hurled flaming tires, grenades and other explosives at troops. But the military has come under heavy international criticism for using disproportionate force against large numbers of unarmed protesters.
Palestinian media reported that the Egyptian mediators would offer Hamas economic incentives in exchange for its commitment to end the protests.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a teenage Palestinian medic was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and protesters. The Israeli army said it had responded to Palestinians who hurled blocks and firebombs at Israeli forces. The army released a video showing what it said was a medic who removed his uniform and joined a group of protesters throwing objects at troops. It was not clear if the video showed the same medic who was shot.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and dozens of skirmishes since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. The latest round was triggered by a Gaza rocket fired early Monday that slammed into a house in central Israel and wounded seven people.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed back to Israel from a trip to Washington to deal with the crisis. Israel struck dozens of targets in Gaza, including Haniyeh’s office. Gaza’s Health Ministry said seven Palestinians were wounded in the airstrikes.
Netanyahu faced the difficult task of delivering a tough blow to Hamas while avoiding protracted fighting that could work against him in next month’s national elections. He has faced heavy criticism from both political allies and opponents for what they describe as his failure to contain and deter Gaza militants.
Netanyahu has conducted indirect cease-fire talks through Egyptian mediators in recent months, and even allowed the delivery of millions of dollars of Qatari aid to Hamas to ease harsh conditions in the territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007.
Hamas has recently faced rare demonstrations over its mismanagement of an economic crisis that has left Gaza with an unemployment rate above 50 percent. Hundreds of Gazans took part in the protests last week, and Hamas responded with a violent crackdown, beating and arresting dozens of demonstrators.
The fighting in Gaza comes amid an uptick in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian health ministry said Israeli soldiers shot dead 18-year-old paramedic Sajed Mizher while he tended to wounded Palestinians during an arrest raid in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem early Wednesday. It said two others were wounded in the clashes.
Fellow paramedic Abed Ghareeb said they were tending to a wounded protester when Mizher, who was wearing a paramedic vest, was shot by a sniper.
The Israeli military said it responded to the violent protests with “riot dispersal means,” which usually refers to tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets. The World Health Organization condemned the killing of the Palestinian medic in uniform, saying, “health care is not a target.”
Israeli troops killed four Palestinians last week, including one said to be unarmed. That followed a weekend stabbing and shooting attack in which a Palestinian killed two Israelis near a West Bank settlement.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.
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