DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A familiar sound rang out in the Gaza Strip last night.
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GREENE: It's the sound of Israeli rockets targeting Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Those airstrikes continued overnight and so did rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel. This round of violence began yesterday when a rocket from Gaza hit a house in Israel. It lightly wounded seven people. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, considered the event serious enough that he cut short a trip to Washington, D.C. Here's what he had to say at the White House before he returned to Israel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I have a simple message to Israel's enemies. We will do whatever we must do to defend our people and defend our states.
GREENE: And we should say all this comes at a critical time. We're just two weeks away from Israeli elections. And let's talk about what this news means with NPR's correspondent in Jerusalem, Daniel Estrin. Hi, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So why these escalations? And why now?
ESTRIN: I think we have to zoom out and see some of the context, David. Tensions have been high here for a year now. Hamas, which rules Gaza, has been helping to lead protests at the Israeli border fence. You probably remember this. Palestinians have been flying burning kites and balloons with explosives across the border as well.
ESTRIN: And Hamas is trying to pressure Israel to ease its blockade on Gaza to improve life in Gaza because there is a crisis there. Unemployment is above 50 percent. People are desperate. But Hamas has not succeeded, really, in improving conditions over this last year. And hundreds of Palestinians this month held unprecedented protests in Gaza against that, and Hamas responded with arrests and beatings. So I think with yesterday's rocket attack, Hamas may have wanted to redirect focus on Israel.
GREENE: OK, so that's the context, and then we have, I mean, these airstrikes and rockets. Although there were some reports of a cease-fire mediated by Egypt. I mean, are either or both sides confirming that?
ESTRIN: Right. Well, that announcement came last night, but violence actually continued overnight. And there were a few dozen rockets fired toward Israel. There were Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. At least seven Palestinians were reportedly wounded. So actually this morning, as we speak, things are quiet now. But today, an Israeli Cabinet minister said, no, there's no cease-fire, and we intend to continue hitting Hamas if we need.
GREENE: Knowing what you know about how these things can go, I mean, do you expect this to escalate even further? I mean, how bad could this get?
ESTRIN: I think neither side wants to go to war, but I also think neither side wants things to calm down quickly. Both sides are walking a tightrope here because Hamas wants to keep pressure on Israel but doesn't want to get hit hard. So the Palestinian rocket fire we saw overnight was quite limited. And then on Israel's side, it is signaling that it's ready to continue fighting and - but it - its airstrikes overnight have been limited as well.
GREENE: And we talk about political pressures, I mean, on both sides here. We have elections weeks away in Israel, Netanyahu cutting his trip short and in the United States. How is his Gaza policy viewed broadly in Israel?
ESTRIN: Netanyahu is facing a lot of criticism in Israel on - from his opponents on both the right and the left. They claim he's appeasing Hamas, that his policy on Gaza has failed. So Netanyahu has an interest to show that he's tough on Gaza. He's fighting for re-election now. But he can't drag Israel into heavy fighting that could become a disaster ahead of elections.
GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks a lot.
ESTRIN: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "FORGIVENESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.