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Israel Worries About Threat From Islamic State

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Well before the latest threat from Islamic State, Israel’s military had stepped up intelligence and preparedness efforts with the militant group in mind.

In particular, Israeli forces are keeping an eye on Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, possibly the organization’s most effective branch in the region, observers say. Sooner or later, Israel believes, Islamic State could attempt some kind of strike on the country.

Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivered a lengthy address Saturday in which he directly threatened Israel — and seemed to be answering critics in Islamist militant circles who have complained that the group, based in Syria and Iraq, has not taken up the Palestinian cause.

“No, O Jews, we did not forget Palestine for one moment,” Baghdadi said in his speech, monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Soon, soon you will hear the crawl of the mujahedeen, and their vanguards will surround you on a day you believe is far but that we see is close.”

“Palestine will be your graveyard,” he said.

Some Islamist extremists who are critics of Islamic State have accused the group of deliberately ignoring Israel, focusing instead on weak governments and instability in places such as Iraq and Syria. Saturday’s remarks were not the first time the group has threatened Israel, but it has generally focused its attention on other enemies.

In his address Saturday, Baghdadi also denounced the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, as well as Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

Another warning to Israel came Sunday from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese-based Shiite organization Hezbollah, who threatened to retaliate for the killing of key operative Samir Quntar the week before in an airstrike in Syria believed to have been carried out by Israel’s military.

In remarks Sunday, Israel’s army chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkott, referred to threats from both groups, saying it doesn’t take broad knowledge of security issues to “understand the sensitivity of these times.”

In recent weeks, the Israel Defense Forces stepped up training of its southern command units and held a surprise drill on its border with the Gaza Strip. Aside from the standing threat from Hamas and other militants in Gaza, the exercise included scenarios for more complex and far-flung threats.

According to Israeli media, Israel’s military trained last month for the possibility of an abduction of its soldiers by Islamic State forces. The exercise simulated a scenario in which Islamic State fighters launched a missile attack on an Israeli tank along the border with Sinai, abducted several soldiers and pushed into Israel’s Negev desert.

The army medical corps has also been holding special drills, practicing setting up a field hospital in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost resort city at the tip of the Red Sea and the Sinai peninsula, as might be required in the case of a massive terrorist attack on the city.

(Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

 

Protest By Ethiopian Israelis Turns Violent In Tel Aviv

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Violence erupted on the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday as a demonstration by Ethiopian Israelis protesting what they said was police brutality against their community spiraled out of control.

Firing stun grenades and tear gas, police in riot gear or mounted on horses battled enraged demonstrators, who threw glass bottles and started fires in the heart of the city while threatening to break into City Hall.

Ambulances raced with the injured from both sides as explosions, sirens, smoke and screams filled the air.

Sunday’s demonstration began tensely but peacefully as hundreds, then thousands of protesters, mostly Ethiopian Israelis, marched waving national flags and placards against racism and police brutality and calling for equality. A similar protest in Jerusalem on Thursday turned violent, and police initially tried to avoid engagement during Sunday’s protest.

In a demonstration organizers said was aimed at bringing the plight of one of Israel’s most marginalized communities to the heart of mainstream Israel, protesters blocked the Ayalon Freeway and brought traffic in the busy metropolis to a standstill.

After five hours of a restrained standoff, the peace collapsed as police moved to open the highway and disperse the crowds, pushing them into the city, where matters deteriorated swiftly despite repeated calls of both police and protest leaders for restraint.

At least 23 police officers and 7 protesters were injured. Police said more than 40 people were arrested.

The highest ranks of Israeli police, including Commissioner Yohanan Danino, were on the scene. “We did everything to enable protest but we will not condone vandalism and violence,” Danino said. “We will pursue those who used violence.”

During a lull in the clashes, when both sides appeared to be regrouping, Pnina Tamano-Shata, a former lawmaker, used a loudspeaker and chanted a slogan from the biblical Book of Psalms: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Dozens of young men sat on the ground behind her, and the violence appeared to subside.

One demonstrator, who did not give his name, faced television cameras and, cloaked in an Israeli flag, said Israel uses the Ethiopian Israelis as cannon fodder.

“We fought in Gaza. We fought in Lebanon before that. We fight and die for the country, which treats us like third-rate citizens. Evidently, our blood is only good for wars,” he said, vowing that the protests would continue for as long as it takes to achieve equality and justice.

The protests were triggered by a video that emerged a week ago showing two policemen pouncing on Damas Pakada, an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent, and beating him with no immediately apparent reason while he was standing by his bicycle on a street in the central city of Holon.

The video, taken from a security camera on a nearby business, circulated in social media and swiftly sparked outrage. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of harsh treatment at the hands of police as well as discrimination by the Israeli establishment.

More than three decades after the first daring Mossad operations that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the community of immigrants and native Israelis now numbers close to 140,000. Modest inroads have been seen some Ethiopian Jews make it to the forefront of public life in Israel as lawmakers, journalists or doctors, but as a whole, the community still struggles for equality and integration into Israeli society.

Just over half live below the poverty line. They are underrepresented in public service and overrepresented in jail. Forty percent of those held in the Ofek prison — a jail for minors — are of Ethiopian extraction, far above their 2 percent representation in Israeli society.

The native Israelis born to immigrant families serve in the military — once the great equalizer for Jewish youth — but activists say they still get bounced from nightclubs, insulted on public transportation and harshly treated by police. The fact that Damas Pakada was wearing an army uniform when he was beaten by police only adds insult to injury, they say.

Danino recently announced plans to appoint a committee to review cases against Ethiopian Israelis, and reportedly intends to close cases found to involve discrimination or mistreatment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will meet with the beaten soldier on Monday and convene a discussion with Ethiopian community leaders, the police commissioner and government authorities who oversee immigration and social welfare.

On Thursday, as protesters neared his official residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu released a statement condemning the beating captured on video and declaring that those responsible would be held accountable.

“The immigrants from Ethiopia and their families are dear to us,” he said, pledging that the state would do more to “ease their integration into society.”

But protesters were not impressed. One woman noted to television cameras that it took Netanyahu nearly a full week to condemn the incident. “Where was he all those days? This pains me.”

One of the police officers caught on camera was suspended from police duties and is under investigation by the Justice Ministry.

(Sobelman is a special correspondent.) (c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Lilach Daniel via Flickr

Israel’s Netanyahu Scrambles As Polls Show Rival’s Lead Growing

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Four days before Israel’s general election, public opinion polls on Friday pointed to a widening lead for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival.

However, the polls also suggested that some 15 percent of the electorate remained undecided, and Israeli elections are known for substantial last-minute vote swings.

Netanyahu’s camp appeared to take seriously his apparent electoral peril. The prime minister, who until now had made almost no campaign appearances, embarked on a blitz of media interviews and speeches.

A series of polls on Friday – the last such surveys that will appear before the vote – showed the center-left Zionist Union, headed by Isaac Herzog, with its largest lead yet, outpolling Netanyahu’s conservative Likud by between two and five seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament. In Israel, votes are cast for parties, not individuals.

The prime minister insisted that the Israeli public still backed him, though polls pointed to more people wanting him gone than for his tenure to continue. Netanyahu said voters perhaps mistakenly believed he would agree to form a “unity” government with Herzog’s bloc, a scenario the Israeli leader has ruled out.

“The majority of the public wants me as prime minister, but some think they can enjoy both worlds and vote for another national party and have me as prime minister,” the Israeli leader told several news outlets. “Anyone who wants me as prime minister must vote for Likud.”

Warning of his dovish rivals’ supposedly soft positions on the Palestinian issue, Iran and terror, the prime minister sounded a familiar note: that the country’s security belongs in his hands. But he acknowledged he risked being tossed out of office “if the national camp doesn’t come to its senses and vote for Likud.”

According to the polls, only half of the Likud voters of 2013 intended to vote for the party this time around.

On Friday, Netanyahu reached out to voters over Facebook, taking questions from the public on a range of issues. He claimed Herzog and opposition candidate Tzipi Livni, with whom Herzog has said he would rotate the premiership, would make concessions under international pressure that would endanger Israel’s security.

“They want to capitulate; we want to stand strong,” he said.

During the campaign, Herzog crisscrossed Israel with multiple daily appearances and interviews. Netanyahu largely refrained from direct campaigning, relying on his stature as the incumbent to keep him in the public eye.

After focusing on security and Iran’s controversial nuclear program for much of the campaign while skirting the socioeconomic challenges that trouble many Israelis, Netanyahu acknowledged high housing costs and pledged to address the issue. According to polls, Netanyahu’s party has lost considerable support to centrist parties focusing on concerns such as the cost of living.

While Netanyahu’s camp sounded the alarm to regain lost support, his rival urged his own backers to keep going full steam and avoid complacency.

“The polls show the trend clearly; we’re on our way to victory,” Herzog said on Facebook. “But to form the next government we need a much bigger camp.”

With the campaign clock ticking down, candidates and campaigners were out in force Friday, competing for attention in crowded public venues. Herzog was attending a rally in the southern city of Ashdod and an open-air market in Tel Aviv, among other stops.

Commentators noted the Zionist Union’s growing lead, but warned not to count Netanyahu out.

“Nothing is final,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Friday’s editions of the Maariv newspaper. “The gap is not inerasable.”

Sobelman is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C.   (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Report Blasts Israel’s Netanyahu For Lavish Personal Spending

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — In a scathing report with potential political and criminal repercussions, Israel’s state comptroller sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for excessive spending of public funds in his official and private residences.

The highly anticipated report, which came just four weeks before Israeli elections, faulted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, for using public funds to spend lavishly on a variety of personal goods and services, including cleaning, clothing, water and grooming, between 2009 and 2012. The spending dropped after that.

Netanyahu defended his behavior, but political opponents seized on the report. Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog said he found the findings infuriating.

“But it is not because of how you conduct yourself in your homes that the public wants to replace you, but because you have destroyed our home,” Herzog wrote on Facebook. “We will replace you because on your shift, Hamas grows stronger … young couples cannot buy a house … because you eat a $5,000 breakfast when every third child in Israel goes to bed hungry.”

The Netanyahus live and work in the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and keep a private home in Caesarea, one of the country’s priciest spots. According to the report by Comptroller Joseph Shapira, spending on both often far exceeded necessity, formal budgets and good taste. In addition, the report pointed to improprieties in management of finances, human resources and external contractors.

When Netanyahu took office in 2009, expenses at both residences totaled roughly a half-million dollars a year. By 2011, that had roughly doubled before dropping to about $600,000 in 2013. Food and hosting expenses alone started out at about $55,000 and more than doubled to about $125,000 in 2011. After a modest cut in expenses the following year, expenses for 2013 dropped to near the 2009 level.

Cleaning both residences came with a particularly high price tag: a monthly average of about $20,000 between 2009 and 2013, including more than $2,000 a month for the Caesarea house, which was usually empty. Shapira found this spending “significantly exaggerated.”

About $20,000 a year was spent to order meal deliveries, despite employing an in-house cook. These and other expenses, Shapira wrote, were “not compatible with the basic principles of proportionality, reasonability, economy and efficiency.”

Personal grooming expenses for the prime minister and his wife totaled well over $100 a day, which Shapira found to be more than double the budgeted amount.

Some of the findings could lead to criminal proceedings. According to the report, Sara Netanyahu finagled employing an electrician who was barred by protocol because he was a personal friend and a member of the prime minister’s political party, Likud.

Justice authorities will have to decide how to address other breaches, including money kept temporarily from recycling bottles from the official residence several years ago and a set of patio furniture bought for the official residence but transferred to the private one. While these were noted in the report, they were not officially investigated.

“Public trust in government institutions is a cornerstone of every democracy,” Shapira wrote, adding that such institutions must gain this trust by adhering to both law and “moral norms.” While he welcomed the apparent cost-cutting after 2012, the comptroller said “one would expect an elected public official to demonstrate extra sensitivity … and serve as an exemplary model of saving public funds.”

Netanyahu was well-prepared for the report, as his attorneys and aides responded swiftly with a press conference, stressing there were no grounds for criminal concerns. The prime minister, said his spokesman, Nir Hefetz, respects the report and has instructed his staff to act on its recommendations.

A statement from Netanyahu’s Likud party accused the news media of pushing the issue for weeks in a “clear effort to remove the prime minister from office … through a focus on irrelevant minutia.”

The statement added that the uproar was distracting from “the real issue at hand,” which is “who will defend Israel in the face of the real security threats and pressure from the international community” — Netanyahu or rivals Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

But for others, money matters are a real issue, and the prime minister’s spending has struck a nerve with some voters who are concerned about the high cost of living and are demanding what they consider a more just distribution of resources.

Housing prices have soared since Netanyahu took office, and with 1.6 million people below the poverty line, Israel has the third highest poverty rate in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
___

(Sobelman is a special correspondent.)

Photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr

Israel’s Parliament Disbands, Sets Elections For March 17

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers voted Monday to dissolve the parliament and hold elections on March 17, making the current government one of the shortest-lived in the country’s history.

With some cellphone cameras flashing but no objections, lawmakers passed the motion at the end of an hourslong discussion of last-minute legislation that included no-confidence motions and harsh criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Lawmaker Dov Khenin called the Netanyahu government “bad and dangerous” and said it had blocked all chances for a political solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Jamal Zahalka accused Netanyahu and his ministers of giving orders that killed thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and called for a no-confidence vote that would be a “harsh indictment against a criminal government.”

The last law passed by the Knesset before it voted to disband was a bill allowing the jailing of African migrants entering Israel illegally. This was the government’s third bid to pass the controversial law, after the Supreme Court ruled that two previous bills approved by parliament were unconstitutional violations of rights, and threw them out.

In a statement after the vote, the community of African asylum seekers and refugees expressed “deep sorrow” over the bill. “A majority of lawmakers … would rather hide us in a desert jail than look reality in the eye. We are asylum seekers, not criminals,” they said. A group of Israeli rights organizations said they would appeal the law to the high court again.

After a protracted political crisis that paralyzed the government, Netanyahu undid his ruling coalition last week when he fired two top ministers and lost four more and called for early elections, two years ahead of schedule.

The immediate crisis was sparked by a contested bill to declare Israel a Jewish state, as well as the proposed budget. The disputes unleashed deep-seated differences within Netanyahu’s coalition that erupted into a fierce, personal confrontation between him and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu fired them both in a dramatic, televised announcement.

Even before the vote, the election campaign was in full swing.

Addressing a business conference in Tel Aviv before the expected vote, Netanyahu called on voters to give him a “clear mandate” to handle economic, defense and diplomatic challenges Israel faces.

“This requires governability,” Netanyahu said, referring to Israel’s fractious political system that makes it difficult for governments to last.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog declared his Labor Party would head the next government and lead the country “to a better future.” Herzog urged legislators to “put ego aside” to allow the formation of a large center-left bloc to challenge the right-wing dominance that could give Netanyahu a fourth term.
___
(Sobelman is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon

Israeli Coalition Collapses As Netanyahu Fires Key Ministers

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Less than two years into office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government collapsed Tuesday as he fired two ministers who lead key parties in his ruling coalition.

Ending a protracted political crisis and speculation about early elections, Netanyahu dismissed Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who have repeatedly challenged his leadership.

“I will no longer tolerate an opposition within the government, I will not tolerate ministers attacking the policy and head of the government from within,” Netanyahu said in announcing the changes.

The statement from his office added that Netanyahu will call to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, as soon as possible in order to “go to the voters and receive a clear mandate to lead Israel.”

An opposition bill to dissolve the Knesset is already slated for discussion Wednesday, and is expected to pass.

Preliminary approval then would start the clock ticking toward general elections, which have to be held within 90 days, or slightly more. The Cabinet would remain in place until a new government is formed after elections.

The Knesset may be dispersed as soon as next week, and new elections could be held around March 17. Previously, the next elections were not scheduled until 2016.

The five-party coalition Netanyahu formed after the last elections in January 2013 was divided from the beginning on a wide range of key issues, including the peace process with the Palestinians, settlements and economic policies, but managed to coexist on other matters.

Political gaps between liberal and hawkish members were further challenged over the last year by a chain of events including the peace talks and their collapse, the war in Gaza, settlement controversy and the recent wave of terror attacks.

The fraying coalition unraveled rapidly in recent weeks amid fierce clashing between Netanyahu and his top ministers over increasingly contentious legislation, and the budget and economic issues. Coupled with an increasingly restive hawkish contingent within Netanyahu’s own Likud party, infighting effectively paralyzed the government.

The latest deadlock was sparked by a controversial nationality bill, declaring Israel to be a Jewish state, and a budget that put Livni and Lapid on a collision course with Netanyahu, whose policies they openly criticized with increasing frequency and urgency.

Both issued erupted into a full-blown crisis as both ministers signaled they preferred elections to compromise. Netanyahu, for his part, demanded loyalty from his entire coalition and said daily threats of resignation and other political dictates made government work impossible.

A series of last-minute meetings Netanyahu held Monday and Tuesday with the leaders of his coalition partners failed to stop the downward spiral of his feuding government.

Fierce accusations flew after a late-night meeting between Netanyahu and Lapid. A late-night statement said Netanyahu does not favor elections now but that this was better than “the continued existence of a Cabinet whose ministers sabotage the government’s actions against the public interest.”

Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, accused Netanyahu of “acting irresponsibly” and reneging on promised guaranteed support for the budget and a flagship economic reform, both geared to lower the cost of living.

“We had an alternative, a good alternative,” Lapid said, adding that billions will now be wasted on unnecessary elections rather than going to education, welfare and health. The cost of elections is estimated at about $500 million.

According to Livni, who chairs the liberal Hatnuah party, elections will not be about the economy but a choice between moderate Israeli Zionism and “dangerous extremists that mustn’t be allowed to take over the country.”

Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, called for a more centrist government that would “fight terror but also make the necessary diplomatic decisions.”

The Labor party, which heads the opposition, already kicked off its campaign two weeks ago, with the slogan “Israel’s stuck with Bibi,” referring to the prime minister’s popular nickname.

Earlier this week, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Netanyahu “failed in every parameter” and brought the country to “a dead end” in diplomacy, security and the economy.

Israel’s political system has taken sharp U-turns in similar situations in the past, but the crisis appeared beyond repair Tuesday.

“Israelis don’t really understand why we are headed to elections after less than two years but that doesn’t matter, it’s a fact,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.

Lieberman said the political system would have to get back on track immediately after the elections to “form a government capable of handling the many challenges” the country faces.
___

(Sobelman is a special correspondent.)

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon

Israeli Woman Killed In West Bank, Soldier Wounded In Tel Aviv

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — A young Israeli woman was stabbed to death outside a Jewish settlement in the West Bank on Monday, officials said, hours after a Palestinian assailant stabbed and critically wounded an Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv. Two others were injured in the West Bank attack.

The violence came amid a spike in tensions that followed months of street clashes in Jerusalem and a weekend of rioting in Arab towns inside Israel after the police killing of a young Arab Israeli man who battered a police vehicle with officers inside.

Details were sketchy about the attack in the West Bank, but the Associated Press reported that the young woman and the two others were assaulted at a bus stop outside the settlement of Alon Shvut. Initial reports described the victim as a teenager, but authorities later said she was 25.

In the other attack, in Tel Aviv, police officials and eyewitnesses said an assailant stabbed the soldier several times with a knife at the Haganah train station before being intercepted by two passersby, who chased him and alerted police as he fled.

The victim, described only as a 20-year-old soldier, was stabilized after resuscitation efforts at the scene and transferred to the nearby Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer with critical injuries.

Police forces pursued the suspect and apprehended him on the top floor of a building 200 yards away from the scene. He was taken into custody with reportedly light injuries sustained during a struggle and the arrest.

The Palestinian news agency Maan identified the assailant in the Tel Aviv incident as 18-year-old Nur al-Din Abu Haysha, from the Askar refugee camp in Nablus. According to Israeli police, the attacker had entered Israel without a permit.

“We regard this incident as extremely grave,” Tel Aviv police commander Benzi Sau told reporters at the site of the Tel Aviv attack. Preliminary information suggests the assailant had also tried to grab the soldier’s weapon, he said.

Sau urged the public to alert the police to any suspicious person or behavior. “This is part of the current vigilance we all live in, police and civilians as one,” he said.

The attacks are part of a spate of violence that appears to be spreading on both sides of the so-called Green Line.

Visiting the scene of the Tel Aviv attack, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonowitz was heckled by citizens who asked, “Where is the security?”

“I had no doubt that terrorism would reach Tel Aviv,” hawkish lawmaker Danny Danon told local media. He urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Aharonowitz to “stop talking and start acting.”

Earlier Monday, Dannon announced he would run for chairman of the Likud party against Netanyahu, whom he said has “lost his way” and abandoned the party’s policy on diplomacy and security issues.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

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Mortar Round From Gaza Strikes Israel; First Since Cease-Fire

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — A mortar round fired from the Gaza Strip struck southern Israel on Tuesday, the first such shelling since a truce took effect last month, ending seven weeks of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which caused no injuries or damage, according to a statement from Israeli military. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told news media that the group remained committed to the cease-fire.

“We will not accept sporadic fire on our communities,” said Haim Yellin, head of the region council in Eshkol, where the shell landed. Yellin urged Israel’s government to secure a long-term calm for its citizens.

Israel’s 50-day military assault on Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza came to a halt Aug. 26 when both sides accepted an Egyptian proposal to hold their fire and agreed to begin negotiations for a more lasting cease-fire within a month. These have not yet begun.

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters there were “no signs fire from the strip will resume at the end of the month, with or without the renewal of the cease-fire talks in Cairo.”

In the meanwhile, the minister said, Israel was “working to stabilize reality on the ground” by relieving restrictions on Gaza, including expanding the coastal enclave’s fishing zone and increasing the number of cargo trucks allowed into Gaza.

Yaalon said construction material would be allowed into Gaza within a month, once a special supervision mechanism was in place to ensure it goes to civilian rebuilding efforts only and not to restoring Hamas’ military infrastructure.

Sobelman is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.

AFP Photo/David Buimovitch

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Body Found Outside Jerusalem Probably Missing American, Say Police

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — A man’s body was found Thursday near the area where a young American yeshiva student had disappeared while hiking six days earlier. An Israeli police spokesman said initial indications suggested it was that of the missing man, but declined to say whether there was any sign of foul play.

Searchers had scoured the area for days for after Aharon Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, New Jersey, failed to rendezvous with a friend after a hike in the woods outside Jerusalem.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said identification of the body, found near the village of Ein Karem, had not been finalized but that preliminary investigation suggested the remains were probably those of Sofer. Forensics teams were at the site, he said.

Word of the body’s discovery came hours before family and friends had been planning a prayer vigil and news conference Thursday evening at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The parents of the missing student, who had come to Israel to study at an ultra-Orthodox seminary, had flown to Israel to await the result of the search.

Shlomo Sofer, a cousin reached by telephone, declined to comment on what the family had been told by police.

Sobelman is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Gaza Cease-Fire Holds; Israeli Officials Head To Cairo For Truce Talks

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

As a three-day cease-fire appeared to hold on the ground in Gaza on Monday, Israeli negotiators returned to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials and indirect discussions with Palestinian militants over a permanent truce and long-term arrangements.

Banks and shops reopened in Gaza, allowing people to resume a cautious routine. Many used the promise of a safe morning to return to the neighborhoods they had fled weeks ago, checking on the state of their homes and property, while medical teams sifted through rubble of destroyed buildings in search of bodies.

In Israel’s south, residents welcomed the calm, but remained relatively close to bomb shelters.

Both sides remained wary, having seen previous cease-fires collapse into violence.

The Egyptian-brokered talks appear to be focused on Hamas’ demands to lift the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory to open the coastal enclave’s border crossings with Egypt and Israel.

Israel demands an end to attacks from Gaza and a multilateral mechanism to ensure militants do not exploit border crossings and the movement of goods. Israel reportedly won’t object to the easing of some restrictions but its officials are calling for a commitment to Gaza’s rehabilitation in return for demilitarizing the strip.

Comments on both sides suggested that a negotiated arrangement is the preferable way to achieving their objectives, but not the only one.

Israel’s military operation to end rocket fire from Gaza “will continue until its goal is met — the restoration of a quiet for a long period,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

A lasting truce must lead to the lifting of Israel’s blockade, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told reporters, saying the current truce was “only one of the tactics” to ensure successful negotiations or facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid.

After securing agreement by both sides to hold their fire for 72 hours, Egypt is now tasked with mediating between Hamas’ demands and Israel’s security concerns, with its own interests playing a key role.

Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonowitz said Monday he was not optimistic about reaching sustainable agreements in that time. The gap between the sides was so wide “it will take a magician to bring a long-term settlement,” he said in a web broadcast.

Early reports from Cairo suggested that Hamas would prioritize a number of demands, including salaries for civilian employees of Hamas-run Gaza and the opening of the Rafah border crossing by Egypt, both of which would also involve the Palestinian Authority.

Another demand for an immediate agreement to build a seaport was unlikely to be met. “Terrorists don’t get seaports or other rewards,” said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

“Israel does not pay for calm,” she said.

In a media interview Monday, Livni said demilitarization of Gaza was a long-term objective. The immediate goal was stopping the rocket fire and arranging for close supervision of materials and aid transferred to Gaza to ensure that they benefit civilians, not militants.

Though Israel’s most urgent goal is reaching an arrangement to end the rocket attacks, Livni, who is Israel’s chief peace negotiator, said she also hopes for a future agreement that could ultimately bring the Gaza Strip back to the control of the Palestinian Authority and away from Hamas, which is considered a terror group by Israel and the United States.

“It would be a missed opportunity if this discussion focuses strictly on achieving calm,” she said.

AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh

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Israeli Leader Says Cross-Border Tunnels Must Be Destroyed

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Amid mounting international concern over civilian casualties and demands for an immediate cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed Thursday that he would accept no truce that would prevent Israel from demolishing the cross-border tunnels that have become the focus of the ongoing fighting.

Speaking at the start of a cabinet meeting held in a rocket-proof room at the defense ministry in Tel-Aviv, Netanyahu said Israel was “determined to complete this mission, with our without a cease-fire.”

International efforts to secure a truce — which would afford time for indirect negotiations for a more permanent arrangement — have so far failed.

Netanyahu’s televised comments shared headlines with news of a fresh round of rockets and mortars launched from Gaza on Thursday morning and an Israeli airstrike targeting what the army said was a group of five militants. Palestinians reported that heavy shelling resumed in Gaza before noon, and that military ground forces had pushed deeper into the coastal strip overnight.

As fighting in Gaza enters its 24th day, the war becomes the longest fought between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and possibly the deadliest for both. At least 1,360 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza medical officials. Israel’s military deaths have reached 56, the highest in nearly a decade.

International organizations warn of an impending large-scale humanitarian disaster in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. UNWRA spokesman Chris Gunness tweeted that the organization was overwhelmed and has “reached breaking point,” with shelters overflowing and staff being killed.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Gaza a “humanitarian disaster zone” Wednesday. A Palestinian statement slammed Israel for “severe violations of international humanitarian law” and urged the international community to hold Israel accountable.

Israel’s military was set to call up 16,000 more army reserves Thursday, boosting reserve forces to 86,000 troops — U.S. defense officials confirmed to CNN that they had approved an Israeli request for resupply of munitions from American stockpiles kept in Israel.

In a phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself alongside concern for the rising numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties, and called for an immediate cease-fire followed by a permanent resolution. Hagel said any process to resolve the crisis “in a lasting and meaningful” way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas.

The stated objective of the military offensive Israel launched three weeks ago was curbing rocket fire into Israel and restoring calm to its residents. An extensive network of underground tunnels used to funnel armed militants into Israel has since become the main focus of the operation, alongside exacting a heavy price from Hamas.

Israel has inflicted “unprecedented damage” on Hamas, defense minister Moshe Yaalon said Thursday, adding that the organization was concealing the scope of its losses.

Military officials say it will take several days longer to destroy dozens of uncovered tunnels. In the meantime Netanyahu is balancing pressure from political hardliners calling for a more aggressive approach in Gaza with increasingly sterner international demands for an immediate cessation of fire.

Photo: Downing Street via Flickr

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Israel Confirms Soldier Is Missing After Gaza Battle

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military announced Tuesday that it was still trying to confirm the fate of a soldier presumed killed Sunday during a battle between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.

The investigation began after a rocket-propelled grenade fired at an armored personnel carrier that had stalled in the east Gaza City area of Shajaiya and presumably killed its seven occupants, soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade.

Two days later, six of the seven soldiers were positively identified but a seventh remained unaccounted for. The military identified the soldier as Oron Shaul.

Shortly after the incident, a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing announced that its forces had abducted an Israeli soldier, citing what it claimed to be his name and civilian identification number.

Throughout Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians celebrated the announcement, firing off guns and firecrackers and blaring car horns into the night.

Israeli media reported that the details provided by Hamas matched an existing soldier, but the army would neither confirm nor deny the possibility of an abduction, until Tuesday’s announcement by the military.

Gaza neighborhoods continued to be pounded from the air and with artillery Tuesday, killing at least a dozen Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis, Palestinian media reported. Two weeks of fighting have left more than 570 Palestinians dead and at least 3,000 injured, according to Gaza medical officials.

Since Israel’s ground operation into the area began Thursday, 27 Israeli soldiers have been killed, the highest number of military casualties since the country’s monthlong war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Reports of a five-hour humanitarian cease-fire appeared premature Tuesday morning as rocket fire continued to target Israel’s south and center, including a heavy volley aimed at the Tel Aviv area. One rocket hit a house in Yehud, causing extensive damage and several minor injuries, officials said; others were intercepted before impact in Israel’s most crowded metropolitan area.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, where he is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the afternoon.

At the apparent beginning of a diplomatic push toward a cease-fire, Israeli officials signaled their military operation would continue. “There will be no cease-fire with Hamas before the operation against the tunnels has been completed,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters Tuesday.

The Israeli military effort in Gaza is focused on Hamas’ extensive network of tunnels, some used for cross-border attacks inside Israeli territory.

Livni said a cease-fire may be considered once Israel’s military objective has been achieved but not on Hamas’ terms. “Hamas’ terms are unacceptable,” she said.

AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana

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Israeli Shelling Rocks Gaza; Palestinian Toll Tops 500

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

Gaza’s neighborhoods came under heavy shelling Monday as rockets continued to fly into Israel, and armed encounters between the sides claimed more lives ahead of U.S Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s expected arrival in the region.

Even as Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prepare to weigh in and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was set to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Qatar, a cease-fire seemed far off and the crisis deeper than ever.

More Palestinians were on the move Monday morning as Israel’s military dropped leaflets cautioning residents of two refugee camps around Khan Younis. Fierce bombing continued overnight, killing at least 34 people, according to Palestinian reports.

One airstrike killed 11 members of the Siyam family in Rafah; in Khan Younis, 16 members of the Abu Jami family died when their house was shelled, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.

In Shajaiya, emergency teams recovered more bodies from the rubble left by Sunday’s bombardment, pushing the Palestinian death toll in the two-week crisis above 500.

Israeli casualties mounted too as its military pushed deeper into crowded neighborhoods of Gaza in search of an elaborate network of tunnels dug under the strip to harbor weaponry and militants. Militants engaged ground forces with gunfire, anti-tank missiles, and explosives. One fierce battle ended with 10 dead militants; Israeli casualties were not immediately reported.

Since the ground operation began, 18 soldiers have been killed, including two U.S. citizens, and more than 80 injured.

About 59,000 reservists are already on active duty as the army stands by for government instructions to expand the operation in numbers and targets if needed. Israeli leaders stressed Monday that all options were on the table and that the operation would not end before the tunnels that borough into its territory have been destroyed.

“This is not the time to talk of a cease-fire,” Cabinet member Minister Gilead Erdan told reporters outside Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon Monday. “This mission cannot be completed until the strategic threat of tunnels is lifted,” the minister said, adding that Israel’s military should stay in the northern perimeter of Gaza until an arrangement that would demilitarize Gaza in the long term was achieved.

Several other Cabinet members commented Monday that the operation was not about to end.

After security consultations with his defensive minister and army chief of staff, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation would be “expanded until the goal is achieved — restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for a long period.”

Since Thursday, 43 shafts leading to 16 tunnels in various locations throughout the Gaza Strip have been uncovered by troops and six tunnels have been destroyed with explosives and other means, according to military officials. Netanyahu said the results of the military campaign against the tunnels “exceeded expectations.”

At least 10 militants were killed Monday morning after infiltrating Israel through a tunnel emerging at an Israeli community near the border with Gaza and firing an anti-tank missile at an army jeep. The incident further underscored Israel’s concern about cross-border tunnels.

Roads were blocked and the residents of several communities were instructed to lock themselves in their homes while the army combed houses and countryside for militants they suspected planned to attack the civilians, the third such attempt in two days. The army has increased deployment in and around the communities near Gaza to counter the increasing attempts.

Although appearing slightly diminished in scope and range, rocket fire into Israel has persisted throughout the operation despite the destruction of around 3,000 rocket launchers, according to army officials.

While officials say Israel has found a working, if not hermetic, answer to incoming rockets with the Iron Dome air-defense system, the Palestinians retain about 50 percent of their arsenal, and barrages targeted Israel’s south Monday morning, with another volley intercepted over Tel-Aviv.

Increasingly, Israeli officials speak of the need for a long-term demilitarization of Gaza after a cease-fire is reached. “This is something we will discuss with the international community,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters over the phone. For now, however, the operation remains focused on the tunnels, she said.

There was no official comment on a report in the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Arab on Monday claiming Israel recently bombed weapons earmarked for Hamas and stored in a warehouse in Sudan, north of Khartoum.

AFP Photo/ Said Khatib

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5-Hour Humanitarian Cease-Fire Between Israel, Hamas Ends With Rockets

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — A short humanitarian cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that began Thursday morning as both sides accepted a United Nations request to hold their fire for a five-hour window has ended.

The cessation in firing ended after less than three hours when Hamas fired three mortars into Israel, hitting the town of Eshkol, Israel Defense Forces said via Twitter. Israel also responded with mortar fire to an explosion that injured a soldier near the southern Gaza strip.

As the originally scheduled five-hour cease-fire elapsed at 3 p.m. local time, air sirens sounded in the southern Israel town of Ashkalon to warn residents of incoming rockets or mortars from Gaza.

The initial pause in fighting that began at 10 a.m., aimed at allowing Gazans to stock up on provisions and reach hospitals for treatment, offered a brief break in the military offensive that has killed at least 220 Palestinians and one Israeli in 10 days.

In Gaza, massive lines formed at banks and ATMs, which opened for the first time in two weeks, and crowds swarmed markets to buy food. Authorities also scrambled to perform repairs on water and other infrastructure devastated by Israeli bombing.

The agreement was reached following the deaths of four children killed while playing on a Gaza beach Wednesday in an airstrike Israel’s military said was intended for a Hamas target.

Efforts to reach an extended ceasefire were underway in Egypt, where mediators were set to shuttle positions back and forth between delegations from Israel and Hamas in separate sections of a Cairo hotel, local media reported.

Hamas, which controls the isolated coastal enclave, was said to consider a lasting cease-fire if Egypt opens the Rafah border crossing permanently and Israel opens access to Gaza by sea, among other conditions.

Highlighting the fragility of the temporary cease-fire, Israel’s military said it thwarted what would have been a major attack inside Israel early Thursday. According to army officials, 13 militants were intercepted coming out of a tunnel about 275 yards into Israeli territory and just over a mile away from a kibbutz, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and an arsenal of others weapons.

Israel attacked the group from the air, killing several militants and apparently sending others on retreat back into Gaza through the extensive tunnel. Residents of three Israeli communities nearby were called to stay indoors while the army combed the area for possible infiltrators.

Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam brigades, claimed responsibility for the attempted infiltration and said “special forces penetrated past enemy lines.” The group claimed, however, that the “mission was completed” and their forces retreated unharmed.

The attack could have had “devastating and deadly consequences for Israel,” said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who added that the incident would not immediately impact the humanitarian cease-fire.

Rocket fire continued right up to the planned break in fire, with several volleys launched at Israel sounding air-raid sirens throughout a wide range of cities. Israel’s military cautioned late Wednesday that it would respond “firmly and decisively” to fire from Gaza during the cease-fire window.

Israels claim to have prevented a ground attack by militants underscores Israel’s concern about the multiple tunnels believed to reach into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip.

In a similar cross-border attack in 2006, militants emerged from a tunnel near an Israeli military post at Kerem Shalom, killed one soldier and abducted another one, Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza for five years before being released in exchange for more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners freed from Israeli prisons.

Among Hamas reported demands for a permanent end to the current fighting, is the release of more than 50 of those prisoners, arrested again by Israel in the West Bank during a crackdown on Hamas following the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month. Israeli authorities say the suspects violated the terms of their release by returning to hostile activity.

The exchange of Israeli airstrikes and rockets from Gaza is the third round of sustained fighting between Israel and Hamas in five years.

In related news, indictments were served Thursday against three Israelis for the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from Jerusalem, that was part of the catalyst for the current round of fighting between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip. A 29-year-old and two minors, whose names were not made public, were charged in a Jerusalem court with abduction, murder and attempted kidnapping.

Abu Khdeir was abducted, beaten, and burned to death in revenge for the killing of three Israelis killed in the West Bank last month. Israel’s attorney general denounced the crime as a shocking case of racism and cruelty, according to local media reports.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

AFP Photo / Thomas Coex

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Israel’s Foreign Minister Calls For Ground Campaign In Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israel’s hard-line foreign minister on Wednesday pressed for expanding the nation’s offensive in the Gaza Strip to include a ground operation in hopes of ending rocket fire from the coastal enclave into Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told reporters in the Israeli city of Ashkelon that “terrorists are using civilians in Gaza as human shields to protect their rockets and weapons” and that civilians are sometimes hurt by Israeli attacks. But he insisted: “The rocket threat cannot be addressed thoroughly from the air only.”

Referring to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza nine years ago, Lieberman said the international community repeatedly demands Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders and remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank.

“Israel did just that in Gaza and withdrew to the last millimeter and evicted 21 communities,” he said. “The result of that move was rockets on all Israeli cities.”

Now, he said, “we expect the international community to back Israel diplomatically as we act to ensure our citizens will live in peace.”

Lieberman, who is known for his outspoken views on Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, made the statements as he toured Ashkelon with his Norwegian counterpart. Shortly after that, an incoming rocket sent the diplomats to a nearby shelter, giving Borge Brend a firsthand experience of squeezing into the safe room of Anat Suissa’s home. A rocket landed in the area, damaging her mother’s clinic, which was empty at the time.

Diplomats continued to converge in the region, as the foreign ministers of Germany, Italy, and Norway were in Israel for talks on resolving the crisis.

In a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said, “As a mother I understand very well the pressure and the tension there, and at the same time the number of civilian victims in Gaza is extremely worrying. I think it’s in the interest of the Israeli and Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, to stop this. All that we can do to support a cease-fire will be done.”

Increasingly, Israel eyes the international community for support to demilitarize Gaza, stripping militants in the enclave of the long-range rockets they use to attack Israel. The recent removal of chemical weapons from Syria is cited as a possible model — if such a step could be achieved diplomatically.

For now, Israel continues to target Gaza’s arsenal, believed to be reduced to about 55 percent of the estimated 10,000 rockets present had prior to the fighting. “The weapons of the resistance are not subject to any negotiation whatsoever,” said Hamas’ military branch in a tweet.

Israel’s military instructed 100,000 Palestinians to leave their homes and move south ahead of planned aerial strikes Wednesday, as its military offensive that has killed more than 200 Gazans enters its ninth day.

Israel suffered its first casualty of the conflict on Tuesday when a 37-year-old man was struck by a mortar shell near the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.

After a failed cease-fire Tuesday negotiated by Egypt but rejected by Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces showered northern Gaza with leaflets from the air warning families to vacate their homes for their own safety by Wednesday morning and to stay south of Jebalya until further notice. “The IDF does not want to harm you,” the notice cautioned, adding that those failing to evacuate “endanger their own lives.”

Previously, at least 17,000 civilians left their homes following similar warnings and took shelter in United Nations schools and other facilities. On Wednesday, many Gazans did not seem to respond to Israel’s warnings, according to media reports.

Meanwhile, talks were underway in Cairo to find ways of salvaging the Egyptian outline for a cease-fire. Hamas officials had rejected Egypt’s proposal as offering no horizon for the impoverished strip, isolated and blocked by Israel and Egypt on either side.

On Wednesday, reports emerged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would propose Egypt opens its border to Gaza under supervision of his security forces. Other reports surfaced of a plan drafted by the militant factions of Islamic Jihad and Hamas for a 10-year cease-fire and removal of all blockades on Gaza.

More than 60 rockets were fired at Israel during the initial hours of Wednesday, nearly 40 landing inside Israel and another 23 intercepted before impacting residential centers. Three family members were killed in Gaza while riding in a car in Khan Younis as it was struck from the air.

In the Israeli parliament, Arab Israeli lawmakers stood to observe a moment of silence for the Palestinian victims of the offensive.

Nine days into the military offensive Israel says it launched to halt rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, the current round of fighting — the third in five years — is already longer than the previous one that ended with a cease-fire and informal understandings between the sides in November 2012, after eight days.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams

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Israel Warns Gazans To Flee Ahead Of Morning Attacks

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military instructed 100,000 Palestinians to leave their homes and move south ahead of planned aerial strikes Wednesday, as its military offensive that has killed more than 200 Gazans enters its ninth day.

Israel suffered its first casualty of the conflict on Tuesday when a 37-year-old man was struck by a mortar shell near the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.

After a failed cease-fire Tuesday, Israel’s military showered northern Gaza with leaflets from the air warning families to vacate their homes immediately for their own safety by Wednesday morning and to stay south of Jebalya until further notice. “The IDF does not want to harm you,” the notice cautioned, adding that those failing to evacuate “endanger their own lives.”

Previously, at least 17,000 civilians left their homes following similar warnings and took shelter in United Nations schools and other facilities. On Wednesday, many Gazans did not seem to respond to Israel’s warnings, according to media reports.

Around 100,000 Palestinians live in the areas surrounding Beit Lahiya, where the army warned it would target sites and operatives it holds responsible for much of the rocket fire against Israel.
Among those reportedly warned is the al-Wafa medical rehabilitation hospital, where international activists gathered to support medical staff who say they cannot evacuate their patients.

Around 22 miles north, the Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, Israel, moved its emergency room into a blast-proof section of the compound.

The instruction came after a late-night meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, which approved an escalation of airstrikes and, if needed, a limited ground incursion, local media reported.

As the ultimatum expired early Wednesday, Israel bombed stretches around Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, targeting what it said were concealed rocket launchers. Separately, three people were killed when a car was hit from the air in Khan Younis.

Gaza militants fired a tight barrage of rockets at Israel, triggering air-raid sirens throughout southern and central Israeli cities. At least four rockets were shot down over the Tel-Aviv metropolitan area, spreading shrapnel in residential suburbs. Around 1,250 rockets have been fired at Israel since last week, according to Israel’s army.

Overnight, Israel bombed several targets, among them a Hamas ministry of interior building and the home of Mahmoud a-Zahar, a senior political leader of the Islamic movement.

Nine days into the military offensive Israel says it launched to halt rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, the current round of fighting — the third in five years — is already longer than the previous one that ended with a cease-fire and informal understandings between the sides in November 2012, after eight days.

Israel on Tuesday unilaterally accepted an Egyptian proposal to end the fighting, but Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza rejected the plan, and the would-be cease-fire collapsed within hours. It was reportedly still on the table Wednesday as Palestinian factions tried to better their bargaining positions and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Cairo for talks.

Separately, in the West Bank, Israel’s military issued warrants to demolish the family homes of two Palestinians suspected of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month. Israel has accused Hamas of the killing, and its crackdown on the movement in the West Bank sparked increased rocket fire from Gaza that ballooned into the ongoing battle.

AFP Photo/ Said Khatib

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Israel Resumes Airstrikes On Gaza Hours After Cease-Fire Attempt

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Hours after unilaterally accepting an Egyptian proposal, a nascent cease-fire collapsed as rocket fire continued from the Gaza Strip and Israel resumed military strikes on militant targets, government, and army officials said Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved the proposal to end the week-long military offensive against militants in the Gaza Strip and instructed the army to hold its fire.

Spokesmen for Hamas and other militant factions rejected the cease-fire and vowed to persist until their demands were met, while other officials claimed the proposal was being studied.

Speaking ahead of a meeting with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to “continue and intensify” its military operation to halt end rocket attacks if Hamas rejected the proposal.

Israel held its fire for six hours as militants launched at least 50 rockets at Israel — some reaching as far as 80 miles from the Gaza strip — before resuming operations.

According to Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon instructed the army to take forceful action against terror targets in Gaza, following the continued rocket fire.

“After five hours and dozens of rockets it is clear the other side wasn’t honoring the cease fire,” one official said, adding “we are acting to protect ourselves.”

As air-strikes resumed, medical officials in Gaza reported 10 people injured in an air-strike in Beit Lahiya in the northern part of the Gaza strip, an area Israel says is responsible for at least one-third of the long-range rocket fire targeting Israeli cities.

AFP Photo/ Said Khatib

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