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Israel-Gaza truce ends worst fighting since 2009 war. Did Iran have a role? (+video)

The Gaza fighting marked the rise of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian proxy that analysts say could be used to try to divert Israel's focus away from Iran's nuclear program.

By Correspondent, Ahmed AldabbaCorrespondent / March 13, 2012

An Israeli soldier directs an army vehicle at a gathering area near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Tuesday. Israel halted its airstrikes against Gaza Strip militants early Tuesday and rocket fire from the Palestinian territory ebbed as a cease-fire ending four days of clashes appeared to be taking effect.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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Tel Aviv; and Gaza City, Gaza

A tentative truce between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza took hold today after the worst flare-up in three years brought the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad militia into the spotlight.

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After Israel killed a senior militant on March 9, it was the relatively fringe group Islamic Jihad that fired at least 180 rockets across Israel's border, allowing it to claim the mantle as the leader of the Palestinian military opposition – a title that once was an undisputed possession of Hamas.

While the rockets did little damage, thanks to Israel's Iron Dome antiballistic system, Islamic Jihad’s move has played well on the Palestinian street, which blames Israel for violating months of relative calm.

"I felt so happy when I saw hundreds of Israelis running to hide in safe shelters as our modest rockets hit their cities," says university student Ismail Radi. "But I wonder why Hamas is not helping ... they are stronger than Islamic Jihad and they have a resistance party that is supposed to confront Israel, they should react on the ground."

Indeed, the emergence of Islamic Jihad marks a role reversal in the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas.

“Islamic Jihad is taking the role that Hamas used to play five years ago,” says Mkaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University. “There is satisfaction among the Palestinian people that Islamic Jihad responded and retaliated against Israel. Hamas is under huge embarrassment in Gaza because it didn’t respond.”

It could also mark a new strategy by Iran, which may see its trusted Palestinian proxy as a means to accomplish two goals: diverting Israel's attention from its nuclear program and coaxing its longtime client Hamas back into the fold. Hamas, long a part of the "axis of resistance" led by Iran and Syria, recently decamped from Syria for pro-Western capitals.

“It would be a safe assumption that Iran would ideally like to see Israel involved in a long, protracted war that doesn’t focus on the Iranian nuclear program,” says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran expert. “After the recent distancing of Hamas from Iran, Islamic Jihad making problems for Hamas could be possibly a way of showing that turning one’s back on Iran has a price.”

Worst fighting since 2009 Gaza war

Today's cease-fire, mediated by Egypt, sought to put an end to four days of fighting that left at least 26 Palestinians dead, most of them militants, and unleashed hundreds of rockets targeting southern Israeli cities.

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