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Israel Intensifies Aerial Offensive Amid More Rocket Attacks From Gaza

By Batsheva Sobelman and Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Warning that its offensive would only intensify, Israel stepped up its aerial campaign against the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, firing missiles that medical sources said killed at least 10 people in the Palestinian enclave Wednesday, including four children.

The barrage came as militants in Gaza kept up their rocket fire into Israel, penetrating deeper into the Jewish state than in the past and causing residents to scurry for cover in communities dozens of miles away, including Tel Aviv. There have been no reports so far of Israeli fatalities or serious injuries.

The airstrikes on Gaza targeted weapons caches, command centers, smuggling tunnels, homes of suspected militants and the alleged militants themselves. Smoke billowed into the sky from damaged and demolished buildings.

Among those killed during the first part of Wednesday were two brothers, 11 and 13; a 4-year-old boy, and a 14-year-old youth, medical sources in Gaza said. At least 32 people have been reported killed and 150 injured since Israel began pounding Hamas-controlled Gaza this week in response to a stream of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

“The battle against Hamas will become wider in coming days. It won’t be a short campaign, and we should be patient,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned.

Israel is also mobilizing up to 40,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. So far, the call-up of the reservists has been selective, drafting troops for headquarters, aerial defense and home-front assignments.

Some of the reservists will relieve troops stationed in the West Bank to free them up to take up positions around Gaza or for a ground operation, an Israeli military official said.

The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Arabi, called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council. A statement from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi’s office said that intensive efforts were underway to broker an end to the outbreak of violence, similar to Cairo’s intervention when hostilities last boiled over between Gaza and Israel at the end of 2012.

But neither the Israeli government nor Hamas gave any indication that the confrontation would soon ease. Israeli officials say that their goal is not just to mount reprisals for rocket attacks but to cripple the capabilities of Hamas and other extremist organizations such as Islamic Jihad.

“Over the last few years, Hamas has built up in Gaza a very formidable terrorist military machine, and we are now acting to dismantle that machine,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told Sky News. “Over the last two, three weeks, there have been messages sent to Hamas: Stop the rocket fire, that quiet will be met by quiet. … Hamas did not heed our warnings.”

The Israeli military said it struck 129 targets across the Gaza Strip between 7 a.m. and early afternoon Wednesday, on top of dozens of airstrikes it had mounted overnight.

In the past few days, more than 170 rockets have hit Israel from Gaza, and more than 50 have been intercepted by Israel’s missile-defense system, known as Iron Dome. The rockets have reached farther into Israel; Hamas said Wednesday it had fired one at the coastal city of Haifa, nearly 90 miles north of Gaza.

The militants are believed to possess hundreds of longer-range rockets, which represent a significant advance in their capabilities.

“Hamas still has surprises left in its arsenal, including long-range rockets. Despite pretending we weren’t, we were surprised by yesterday’s fire,” Danny Yatom, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, said in a television interview.

The sharp increase in armed hostilities follows the kidnapping and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers, which Israel blames on Hamas, and the brutal revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem last week.

AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana

Palestinian Rockets Reach Further Into Israel

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — A fresh round of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip sent Israelis scurrying for bomb shelters as far as Tel-Aviv, 40 miles away Wednesday morning, the second day of Israel’s military offensive on the Hamas-Gcontrolled Gaza strip.

Hamas claimed responsibility for firing a volley of rockets intercepted before hitting Tel Aviv, as other rockets landed throughout central Israel, shutting down main traffic arteries and causing concern for air traffic.

Israel pounded Gaza overnight by dozens of airstrikes against 160 targets, including 120 concealed long-range rocket launchers, Hamas facilities and command positions, Israeli army officials said. The military offensive came as plans were made to deploy a third infantry brigade along the Gaza border and continued drafting of army reservists.

At least 23 Palestinians have been reported killed and dozens more injured in the latest Israeli offensive dubbed Operation Protective Edge, which began early Tuesday morning. Palestinians reported at least one fatality Wednesday morning in an air strike that targeted a man on a motorcycle in the northern part of the Gaza strip.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon announced his recommendation to senior defense and diplomatic officials that Israel cease the transfer of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip.

“It is inconceivable that at the same time that we are battling Hamas, we are also transferring fuel and electricity to the very terrorists who are firing missiles at our cities,” Danon said. “We must use every tool at our disposal to pressure Hamas so that they unconditionally end their attacks on Israel.”

Increasingly, rockets fired from Gaza appear more advanced and with greater range, reaching further into Israel than ever before. One rocket Tuesday night struck the city of Hadera, about 72 miles into Israel. It landed on a residential street but caused no injuries. The area has been targeted in the past but by Hezbollah rockets from the opposite direction.

Uzi Rubin, former director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said that Hamas had improved its arsenal of rockets since Israel’s previous military operation in the Gaza Strip in November 2012. “During the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt, relations between the two were good and allowed free use of smuggling tunnels for weaponry, machinery, components and raw materials,” Rubin said. “Egypt has since shunned Hamas and shut down the smuggling tunnels.”

Given the closed tunnels and current chilly relations with Egypt, Hamas will have difficulty replenishing its arsenal. “Every rocket they fire now is one that cannot be immediately replaced and judging by how they are conserving their ammunition, they are preparing for a long campaign,” Rubin said.

According to Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner, the rocket that struck Hadera was an M-302, similar to those found on the Klos-C, a ship intercepted by the Israeli Navy in March in the Red Sea 621 miles from Israeli shores. Among the weaponry found on board were 40 rockets of this type with a range of up to nearly 100 miles.

Manufactured in Syria and shipped by Iran, the rockets were earmarked for the Gaza strip, according to Israel. Iran has not claimed responsibility for the shipment.

“We said back then that this was a game-changer,” said Lerner.

Although that particular shipment was intercepted, Hamas is believed to have several dozens of these rockets. Some versions of the M-302 have a range of up to 124 miles with a 385-pound warhead. The militant faction is also believed to have its own locally manufactured version of this rocket.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened security cabinet ministers Wednesday morning for discussions.

AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli

Israelis, Palestinians Struggle For Way Forward As Deadline Nears

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations still deadlocked a week before their current round expires, negotiating teams met Tuesday with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk in Jerusalem to discuss extending the troubled talks.

Nine months of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian teams have yielded little agreement, and both sides’ tough positions have stymied the effort to secure a framework for working toward a two-state solution to the conflict.

The U.S.-mediated negotiations broke down last month over Israel’s delay in releasing a group of Palestinian prisoners as promised. That was followed by a Palestinian request to the United Nations to join more than a dozen international treaties, a move opposed by Israel.

Both sides have indicated they wish to continue the talks but have terms. The Palestinians this month drew up a list of conditions, including Israeli recognition of Palestinian borders along lines that predate the 1967 Middle East War and of East Jerusalem as the Palestinians’ capital. Israel rejected the conditions, as it has long done, and has so far avoided concrete discussion of borders.

Talks broke down, though Israel reportedly was considering a deal that would free the promised prisoners and an additional 400 Palestinians being held and partially freeze settlement construction. The release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted in 1987 of spying on the U.S. for Israel and who remains imprisoned in North Carolina, reportedly also was on the table.

The last-stretch efforts came amid recent reports that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was considering dissolving the authority, potentially turning the tables 20 years back and leaving responsibility for millions of West Bank Palestinians to Israel.

On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said such an extreme step would have “serious implications” for American relations with the Palestinians, including future assistance.

In a meeting with Israeli journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas said talks could continue beyond April 29 if Israel meant to be “serious regarding the political negotiations and the two-state solution.”

He outlined the Palestinians’ basic conditions for continuing the talks. First, Israel would have to release the last group of Palestinian prisoners it promised to release when talks began, including a group of Israeli citizens.

Several members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have threatened to quit their posts and even the government if Israel agrees to Abbas’ demand that Israel free Arab Israeli citizens jailed for violent crimes against Israelis.

The next condition, Abbas said, is that the talks focus immediately and intensively on determining the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. During this intensive three-month period, Palestinians will demand a complete freeze on all settlement construction.

Abbas stressed Palestinians’ desire for two states living side by side in peace and security. “We want to end the painful chapter in the history of our two peoples and turn a new leaf for our children,” he told the Israelis.

However, Abbas said, if negotiations fail, the Palestinians will tell Israel that it has “emptied the Palestinian Authority of all content; here it is, take it.”

In that case, Palestinians will peacefully hand over to Israel all civilian and security authority throughout the West Bank and the Israelis will resume full responsibility for all services, he said.

Netanyahu maintains it is the Palestinians who must decide where they’re going.

“They should decide whether they want to disband or have unity, and when they want peace, they should let us know, because we want a genuine peace,” he said Monday. He was referring to unity talks between the rival Palestinian political movements Fatah and Hamas set to start in the Gaza Strip.

The State Department’s Psaki said it was up to both parties to decide the way forward.

“As long as they want to find a way to continue the negotiations, we’re willing to help them do that,” she said.

Psaki said Secretary of State John F. Kerry remained willing to travel to the region to help, though she said she had no plans to announce.

Photo: Acroll via Flickr

Rockets, Airstrikes Across The Israel-Gaza Border During The Holiday

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israeli warplanes struck several sites in the Gaza Strip on Monday following a barrage of rockets launched at southern Israel from the seaside enclave earlier in the day, a military spokesman said.

According to an army statement, seven rockets were fired from Gaza early Monday, in addition to an anti-tank missile fired at an Israeli patrol.

One rocket caused damage to civilian infrastructure in the Israeli town of Sderot but no injuries were reported.

In response, Israel’s air force targeted three sites in Gaza.

“Hamas rocket terrorism is an intolerable reality Israelis should not have to accept,” said a statement from Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.

No Palestinian faction claimed responsibility for the rocket fire.

Palestinian sources reported two security officers injured in one of the strikes that targeted an unspecified security facility in the Nuseirat refugee camp.

The tension erupted as Israelis were marking the end of the Passover holiday, with many vacationing outdoors in the southern regions within rocket range from Gaza.

The events also took place as Palestinian delegates from the Fatah and Hamas plan to meet in Gaza in coming days to advance possible reconciliation between the two rival political movements, divided since Hamas’s forceful takeover of Gaza in 2007.

Photo: Acroll via Flickr