Iran Nuclear Deal Threatens Israel’s ‘Survival,’ Netanyahu Says

Iran Nuclear Deal Threatens Israel’s ‘Survival,’ Netanyahu Says

By Batsheva Sobelman and Laura King, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday renewed his harsh criticism of the preliminary nuclear pact with Iran, declaring it a danger to his country’s existence.

Hours before the start of the Passover holiday, which begins at sundown Friday, Netanyahu huddled with his “security Cabinet” — made up of his most senior ministers on military, diplomatic and security issues — to discuss the framework agreements signed in Lausanne, Switzerland on Thursday.

“The Cabinet is united in its opposition to the deal reached with Iran,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued after the meeting. “This deal would pose a grave danger to the region and to the world, and would threaten the very survival of the State of Israel.”

Although Netanyahu showed no sign of softening his stance, some Israeli commentators described the nuclear agreement’s preliminary terms as surprisingly favorable.

“If the framework presented becomes the final agreement … even Israel could learn to live with it,” commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote on the Ynet website. However, he cautioned, “we must be wary of appearances_too many key issues still remain unresolved.”

Under the framework accord, Iran is to sharply curtail its uranium enrichment capacity in exchange for an easing of punitive sanctions that have devastated its economy.

Before the outlines of the deal were announced, Israel refused to rule out a unilateral strike to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Thursday that “if we have no choice, we have no choice,” adding, “The military option is on the table.”

Some observers, though, said such talk amounted to little more than bluster.

“The time has come to stop fantasizing and to connect with reality: Israel does not have a military option to destroy the Iranian nuclear program,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Friday’s editions of the Yediot Ahronoth daily. “Even if it had such an option in the past, it expired.”

Some commentators suggested that President Obama’s decision to call Netanyahu to discuss the accord could signal a potential thaw in icy relations between prime minister and the White House_a rift that has been greatly exacerbated by the Iran nuclear issue. The Haaretz daily, however, characterized the two leaders’ conversation as “difficult.”

The prime minister infuriated the U.S. administration earlier this month when he defied White House wishes and delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress lobbying against the president’s plan to try to strike a deal with Iran. Some urged Netanyahu to take advantage of an opportunity to get back in good graces with the U.S., saying such a course of action would allow Israel to wield more influence over the final shape of the accord.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told Israel’s Channel 10 that Netanyahu should pursue a “grand strategy” of cooperating with the U.S. on the Palestinian issue and curtailing settlement activity outside established blocs, or risk further alienating Washington.

“The danger is that the disconnect with the U.S. will lead to a poor agreement with Iran, all for the sake of building in remote settlements that Israel will never keep in a future agreement,” Yadlin said.

Others, though, said it would be difficult now for Netanyahu to climb down from his fierce opposition to any deal — particularly as he seeks to keep right-wing allies happy as he sets about forming a government in the wake of his party’s electoral success earlier this month.

In Iran too, backers of the accord were having to contend with criticism from hard-liners. Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who returned to Tehran on Friday from the Lausanne talks, sought to calm opponents, declaring in a tweet that “the solutions are good for all, as they stand.”

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Cairo. Special correspondent Rahim Mostaghim contributed to this report from Tehran.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the U.N. General Assembly. September 27, 2012. (UNIC / John Gillespie via Flickr)

Four Worshipers Killed In Attack On Jerusalem Synagogue

Four Worshipers Killed In Attack On Jerusalem Synagogue

By Batsheva Sobelman and Laura King, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — A pair of attackers armed with axes, knives, and firearms stormed a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday, killing at least four worshipers and injuring others before a police officer shot them dead, in the most serious strike in the holy city in years, police said.

Palestinian media named the attackers as Udai Abu Jamal and Ghassan Abu Jamal, cousins from the Palestinain village of Jabel Mukabar in south Jerusalem. Fresh clashes broke out Tuesday as police arrived to arrest several of their relatives.

According to eyewitnesses and initial Israeli news reports, the attackers burst into the four-story synagogue in the devoutly religious western Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, attacking a crowd attending early morning prayers.

Israeli media cited witnesses as describing worshipers wrapped in their prayer shawls felled in mid-prayer, on the floor in pools of blood. Among the victims was a prominent rabbi.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was convening a special security meeting, and said Israel would “respond harshly” to what he called “the cruel killing of Jews…by despicable murderers.”

In a phone call to Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed condolences for the attack and condemned it as “senseless brutality.” Kerry was in neighboring Jordan for talks aimed at calming tensions, and met separately last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry’s demand for Palestinian condemnation prompted a statement from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who denounced “killing civilians from any side” including the Jewish worshippers.

At the same time, Abbas demanded a halt to what he called Israeli “intrusions” into a contested holy site in Jerusalem’s old city.

In the Gaza strip, the attack was welcomed with celebratory gunfire and a statement from Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who called it a response to the “continuing crimes of the occupation.” Another official, Hussam Badran, called it an “heroic act.”

While recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been punctuated by “lone wolf”-type of attacks, such as stabbings, Tuesday’s assault represented a marked escalation, chillingly reminiscent of large-scale strikes in Israeli cities that took place during two previous Palestinian uprisings during the period from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.

The fact that the attack took place at a Jewish house of worship was certain to further inflame religious tensions. This month has seen fiery attacks on a northern Israeli synagogue and a West Bank mosque, however these caused property damage and no loss of life or injuries.

Police said preliminary indications were that the assailants were Arabs from east Jerusalem, which for months has been the scene of near-daily clashes between police and Palestinians.

In Har Nof, those living near the synagogue were told to remain indoors while authorities ruled out the presence of another assailant, but eventually were given the all-clear after the presence of a third attacker was ruled out.

Helicopters circled overhead, and windows glowed with reflections of the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Residents in their ultra-Orthodox garb filled the streets, wandering among the emergency personnel.

The attack was the latest in a wave of violence sweeping Jerusalem and other locations, against a backdrop over friction over the holy site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Other issues, such as stepped-up plans for Jewish buildings in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, plans to enlarge West Bank settlements, and the summer’s war in the Gaza Strip have also generated fury and resentment among Palestinians.

“We’re at war,” Israeli lawmaker Aryeh Deri, a resident of the typically quiet ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood where the attack took place, told Israel radio. “If every synagogue in the country needs protection, we have returned to bad times.”

At least six people have died in attacks over the past month, including four people killed by vehicle attacks at tramway stations in Jerusalem, a soldier who was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv and a Jewish woman settler who was killed in the West Bank.

Photo via Wikicommons

Gaza Truce Deadline Looms; Israel, Hamas Stick To Demands

Gaza Truce Deadline Looms; Israel, Hamas Stick To Demands

By Laura King, Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

The latest Gaza truce is the longest so far, lasting five days, but an agreement over demands remains elusive.

Hamas appears at odds not only with Israel but other Palestinian factions in the delegation to the Cairo talks.

As the clock ticked down on yet another Gaza cease-fire, Egyptian mediators on Monday prodded Israel and the Palestinians to take steps to avert another outbreak of hostilities, but neither side showed public signs of softening its demands.

The latest truce — the longest so far, lasting five days — was due to expire at midnight local time. Israel warned the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, against any resumption of rocket fire, saying such a move would draw a forceful response.

Israel has expressed willingness to extend the cease-fire and continue indirect talks if the calm held. Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel radio on Monday that prospects for an accord were “not spectacular, to say the least.” But he added that “one must wait … sometimes there are surprises.”

Hamas, for its part, appeared to find itself at odds not only with Israel but with other Palestinian factions in the delegation to the Cairo talks, taking a harder line than the government of President Mahmoud Abbas on several points, including how and when an Egyptian and Israeli blockade of the coastal territory will be eased.

A monthlong war between the two sides, which tapered off with a series of cease-fires and the withdrawal of Israeli ground forces earlier this month, killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them believed to be civilians, and 67 on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.

When the last truce expired late Wednesday, there was argument almost up to the moment of the deadline. And even as the extension was announced, there was a brief flare-up of fighting — rockets fired from Gaza and retaliatory airstrikes by Israel. Hamas, which has allied fighters it says it does not directly control, denied its forces had fired the rockets.

Hamas came under pressure over the weekend to moderate its position in talks between Saeb Erekat, representing Abbas, and Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar and heads Hamas’ political bureau. Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper said Abbas’ government is trying to get Hamas to accept an Egyptian-authored formula for an accord even if it falls short of Hamas’ demands.

But after the extreme scope of death and devastation in Gaza, Hamas wants to produce landmark results, such as a commitment for the reopening Gaza’s seaport and airport. Israel insists that stringent security provisions would have to be in place to prevent Hamas from exploiting an easing of the blockade in order to rearm.

Delays in reaching an accord have been holding up the start of full-scale efforts to start reconstruction of Gaza, where the infrastructure has been battered and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. Norway announced that its government and Egypt would cohost a donor conference to kick off what is likely to be a massive and lengthy rebuilding effort.

As the deadline neared, Monday brought a reminder of the events that helped touch off the Gaza conflict. The Israeli military said Monday that troops had demolished the West Bank homes of two suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens, and blocked off a third. After the teens’ bodies were found, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Hamas and authorized a wave of arrests of Hamas suspects in the West Bank.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem.

AFP Photo/Thomas Coex

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Gaza Truce Holds As The Two Sides Talk In Cairo

Gaza Truce Holds As The Two Sides Talk In Cairo

By Laura King, Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

After a shaky start, a new temporary truce in the Gaza Strip appeared to be holding Thursday.

The two sides, which have been holding indirect talks in Cairo, agreed late Wednesday to a five-day cease-fire, according to Palestinian negotiators and the Egyptian government, which is mediating the talks.

If the truce holds for its full duration, until Monday night, it would be the longest cessation of hostilities since fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants erupted on July 8. Israel withdrew its ground forces from Gaza last week, and the conflict has since tapered off, with occasional flare-ups.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke Wednesday by telephone with President Obama, was convening his security Cabinet on Thursday to discuss the status of the ongoing talks. Israel wants Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to disarm, and Hamas is demanding a lifting of the blockade of the coastal territory and a prisoner release.

As the previous cease-fire was winding down and the new truce taking hold, Israel was hit late Wednesday and early Thursday by a volley of missiles and responded with a series of retaliatory airstrikes. No new casualties were reported on either side.

In Gaza, many people were taking advantage of the relative calm to resume some semblance of normal life. Traffic was flowing and shops were open, although huge areas of devastation remain.

The conflict has killed more than 1,900 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have died, along with three civilians on the Israeli side.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

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Gaza Fighting Erupts Again As Cease-Fire Expires

Gaza Fighting Erupts Again As Cease-Fire Expires

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

Fighting broke out in the Gaza Strip again Friday morning after a three-day truce expired, with Palestinian militants lobbing dozens of rockets into Israel and the Israeli military firing back with fresh airstrikes.

Egypt, which has been hosting indirect talks between the two sides, was struggling to get the truce back on track.

The Israeli army spokesman’s office said in a statement that “terror sites” across Gaza had been targeted following the resumption of Palestinian rocket fire. Hamas disavowed responsibility for the initial volleys of rockets after the cease-fire’s end, with smaller Palestinian factions claiming to have carried out the attacks.

At least two projectiles were intercepted by Israel’s antimissile system, with others falling in open areas in southern Israel.

In Gaza City, Israeli drones circled overhead, and the streets were empty by midmorning as most people stayed indoors, having hurried away from areas that were previously targeted. In southern Israel, authorities reimposed restrictions on large public gatherings in communities close to Gaza.

Casualties were reported on both sides, with four people reported injured in Israel and several deaths on the Palestinian side, including that of a 10-year-old boy in Gaza City. But the outbreak of fighting was not as fierce as it had been in days prior to the three-day cease-fire.

The renewed violence left the future of the Cairo talks in doubt. Israel’s delegation left the Egyptian capital following a contentious all-night session, according to Israeli and Egyptian media reports, and it was not clear when or whether it would return. The indirect talks have centered on extending the cease-fire but also on laying the groundwork for a longer-term accord.

The lull, the longest since the start of the conflict on July 8, had been punctuated by bellicose rhetoric from Hamas, and by warnings from Israel that it would hit back hard if attacked.

“The renewed rocket attacks by terrorists at Israel are unacceptable, intolerable, and shortsighted,” said army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner after Israel resumed its strikes. He blamed “Hamas’ bad decision to breach the cease-fire.”

Hamas and its allies have fired more than 3,300 rockets and missiles into Israel during the past month, and Israel has raked the seaside strip with airstrikes and artillery fire aimed at destroying rocket launchers and infiltration tunnels.

Israel had said previously it would have no objection to continuing an unconditional cease-fire while indirect talks in the Egyptian capital continued. But Hamas refused to extend the truce until it first achieved political concessions from Israel.

Among other demands, Hamas has called for the lifting of a blockade on the territory by Israel and Egypt. Palestinians say the tight restrictions on movement of goods and people are strangling Gaza economically; Israel says Hamas’ construction of an elaborate network of infiltration tunnels — and the buildup of a huge Hamas arsenal — show that freeer movement of goods in and out of Gaza would be impractical.

However, some parties have called for international monitoring of entry and exit points into the coastal enclave, including European proposals for a maritime passageway that would be monitored at both ends.

Israel launched its aerial campaign against militants in Gaza after weeks of rocket fire and launched a ground incursion into the narrow coastal strip on July 17. During four weeks of fighting, some 1,900 Palestinians have died — the majority of them civilians, according to the U.N. — and 64 Israeli troops were killed. Israel unilaterally withdrew its ground forces just before the three-day truce took effect on Tuesday morning, but its troops remained deployed outside the border fence.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem, and special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed

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Gaza Cease-Fire Holds, But Sharp Rhetoric Suggests Truce May Be Fragile

Gaza Cease-Fire Holds, But Sharp Rhetoric Suggests Truce May Be Fragile

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip held their fire on Thursday, the final day of a three-day truce, but sharp rhetoric from both sides suggested that the lull was a fragile one.

An emboldened Hamas held a rally in Gaza for the first time since the conflict broke out a month ago, calling for its political demands to be met at talks in Cairo.

“Our fingers are on the trigger and our rockets are trained at Tel Aviv,” Hamas official Mushir al-Masri told the crowd of several thousand at the rally, according to The Associated Press.

Even as negotiators in Cairo worked to forge a longer break in hostilities and lay groundwork for a durable accord, civilians on both sides worried that the battle could reignite.

“It has happened so often — the fighting stops, and then starts again,” said Palestinian schoolteacher Mahmoud Modares, who took his son to the seaside in Gaza City for a romp in the surf. He said the family planned to stay indoors on Friday, even if a truce extension were announced.

On the Israeli side, some people were returning to their homes in the south of the country, but those living closest to Gaza remained wary. Military reservists, thousands of whom were uprooted from daily lives at the onset of the ground offensive, were to return home by the weekend.

Israel issued unambiguous warnings against any resumption of rocket fire from Gaza. More than 3,300 projectiles were fired by Hamas and allied militants during four weeks of fighting, most of them either intercepted by Israel’s antimissile defense system, Iron Dome, or falling in open areas.

“They shouldn’t test us,” Israeli Cabinet minister Yair Lapid told a news conference Thursday. The Israeli military was “prepared and ready,” he said, and “any rocket fire will be answered with heavy fire.”

A day earlier, Hamas representatives at the Cairo talks had quashed reports that the truce was to be extended.

In Gaza, where the fighting left about 1,900 people dead, this week’s break in bombardment — the longest lull yet since Israel’s aerial offensive began July 8 — the calm afforded an opportunity to recover more bodies that had been buried under tons of rubble. It was an often grisly task.

At the morgue at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital — overflowing at the height of the fighting — nearly all remains had been taken for burial, but some were still arriving, including the mangled corpse of a man found in the wreckage of a high-rise that had been bombarded two weeks earlier.

Human rights groups say most of the dead in Gaza are civilians, including more than 400 children. Israel maintains that up to 900 of the dead were fighters for Hamas and affiliated groups, and has repeatedly asserted that Hamas deliberately put civilians in harm’s way.

Sobelman is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.

AFP Photo / Jack Guez

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New Gaza Cease-Fire Begins As Israel Withdraws Troops

New Gaza Cease-Fire Begins As Israel Withdraws Troops

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

After four weeks of ferocious fighting, the guns of Gaza fell silent Tuesday with a 72-hour truce in place and talks on tap in Egypt aimed at forging a stable accord between Israel and Palestinian militants who rule the coastal enclave.

Though several previous cease-fires broke down in violence, Gazans venturing out for supplies or making their way toward ruined districts cut off by earlier fighting expressed cautious hopes that this might be the beginning of the end of the war.

“It’s not just bread to eat,” said Abdullah Mustafa, a father of seven who was buying hot loaves at a bakery in Gaza City flanked by damaged buildings. “Finally, God willing, some air to breathe.”

Before the cessation of hostilities began at 8 a.m. local time, Israel pulled the last of its ground troops out of the narrow seaside strip, deploying them in what it described as “defensive positions” on Israel’s side of the border fence. Overnight, Israeli forces completed the demolition of 32 militant-dug tunnels its forces had located, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

By midafternoon, the truce appeared to be holding. In Gaza City, families on foot, in rusty automobiles and in donkey-drawn carts began the trek from temporary shelters back to bombarded neighborhoods in the northern and eastern part of the territory.

Firing continued up until almost the moment the truce took effect. Militants in Gaza sent a volley of 20 rockets toward Israel, with most of the projectiles intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system or falling harmlessly. One of the last of them struck a Palestinian home in Beit Sahour, near biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, causing damage but no injuries, according to Israeli media reports.

Indirect talks to be held in the Egyptian capital looked to be contentious. Hamas has previously demanded a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, the territory Hamas has controlled since 2007, but Israel is reluctant to reward the Islamist movement for what it considers blatant aggression in the run-up to the war. And Egypt, which controls access to southern Gaza through a crossing at Rafah, has a government hostile to Hamas.

The fighting has exacted a heavy toll: nearly 1,900 Palestinians reported dead, with the toll likely to rise when bodies are recovered from previously inaccessible areas. Israel says as many as 900 of those are fighters from Hamas or allied militant groups such as Islamic Jihad. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians were killed.

Israel launched an air offensive on July 8, which widened to a ground incursion on July 17, in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire. Once operating inside Gaza, Israeli forces uncovered a network of “attack” tunnels, many lying directly under densely populated areas.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for failing to take sufficient steps to protect the civilian population. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in turn has repeatedly blamed Hamas for deliberately positioning rocket launchers and tunnels in densely populated areas so as to put civilians in harm’s way.

Both sides remained wary as the calm extended into midmorning. “The IDF will respond if it is attacked, and if there are strikes against us,” Lerner said. On the Israeli side of the fence, residents of southern communities that have borne the brunt of rocket and mortar fire said they still did not feel safe.

“We live in constant fear and anxiety,” Yankale Argentaro, who lives in a kibbutz near the Gaza boundary, told Israel TV as he watched military sappers disarm a mortar fired from Gaza just before the truce took effect. “Living here is Russian roulette.”

The Gaza conflict’s ripple effect continued to be felt in the West Bank and Jerusalem. A security guard was stabbed Tuesday at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, and an assailant fled in the direction of a nearby Palestinian village, officials said.

Israeli authorities have blamed other scattered attacks in Jerusalem this week on angry sentiment stemming from Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Gaza City.

AFP Photo/Marco Longari

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Seven Hour Truce Ends In Gaza; Israel And Hamas Both Claim Violations

Seven Hour Truce Ends In Gaza; Israel And Hamas Both Claim Violations

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — A seven-hour cease-fire in the Gaza Strip on Monday ended as have previous short-term truces: with the two sides accusing one another of violations. At the same time, a pair of relatively small-scale attacks in Jerusalem — one carried out with a piece of construction equipment — rekindled fears that the Gaza conflict’s repercussions could spread.

The pause in fighting, which began at 10 a.m. local time, did not apply to Rafah, at the strip’s southern tip, which has been the scene of heavy fighting since Friday morning.

Those clashes precipitated the breakdown of the last brief cease-fire, one of several to collapse soon after being declared. Palestinians have used previous lulls in the fighting to stock up on food and water and scour ruined homes for any possessions that can be salvaged, and they did so again Monday.

In the hours just before the hiatus, Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel and Israel bombarded the coastal enclave with airstrikes, artillery fire, and shelling from naval vessels offshore. Israel said dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza during the hiatus, and Palestinians said an Israeli airstrike on a seaside refugee camp that killed an 8-year-old girl had taken place after the cease-fire began.

Hamas derided the temporary truce as a ruse meant to divert attention from “Israeli massacres.”

Israel had drawn international condemnation with a strike on Sunday at the gates of a U.N. school in Rafah sheltering displaced Palestinians, which killed at least 10 people. Israel says it struck a target nearby — militants on a motorcycle — and was still checking on what ordnance had fallen next to by the school entrance.

But both the United States and the United Nations issued sharp statements demanding that more care be taken to avoid hurting and killing civilians. The Obama administration called the strike “disgraceful.”

Human Rights Watch charged Monday that Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Khuza’a had committed war crimes by firing on and killing civilians between July 23 and 25.

The organization said Israeli forces had provided general warnings to the town’s residents to leave the area prior to July 21. However, it said, Israel had a responsibility to avoid civilian casualties, even if people ignored the warnings.

“Warning families to flee fighting doesn’t make them fair targets just because they’re unable to do so, and deliberately attacking them is a war crime,” said said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said he was not aware of the Human Rights Watch charge, and had no immediate response.

Most Israeli ground forces are gone from Gaza, Israeli media reports say, but some remain on the periphery of the strip, continuing to destroy tunnels leading into Israel. More than 30 have been rendered useless, the army says.

Thousands of troops were inside Gaza at the height of the ground offensive, though Israel as a matter of policy did not provide an exact figure.

The Israeli military said a strike before dawn killed a leader of Islamic Jihad, an ally of the militant group Hamas, which dominates the territory. The army identified the dead man as Danyal Mansour, Islamic Jihad’s commander in northern Gaza.

Palestinians said at least six others died in the strike as well.

Hours after the deadly attack on the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, which injured about two dozen people in addition to killing an 8-year-old girl, the Israeli military had still not identified the intended target. The military said the strike took place “around” 10 a.m. local time, when the truce was beginning, leaving open the possibility that it had been a few moments later.

Anger over bloodshed in Gaza has been growing among Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Monday saw an attack using a tactic that was familiar more than a decade ago.

Authorities said a Palestinian man apparently stole a piece of heavy machinery from a construction site, then used it to ram vehicles, including a nearly empty bus, in the nearly all-Jewish western part of the city.

One man was reported killed and six others hurt in the attack; the assailant was shot by police and died of his wounds. Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld tweeted that the incident was being treated as a terrorist attack.

A short time later, another assailant, this one on a motorcycle, shot and wounded an Israeli soldier, and then fled toward a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, officials said. The shooting victim was reported in serious condition.

Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman reported from Jerusalem, Los Angeles Times staff writer Laura King from Gaza City.

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon

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Palestinians Declare ‘Day Of Rage’ As Kerry Pushes Cease-Fire

Palestinians Declare ‘Day Of Rage’ As Kerry Pushes Cease-Fire

By Batsheva Sobelman and Laura King, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Amid a new U.S.-backed push for a cease-fire, Israeli forces pounded targets across the Gaza Strip early Friday, including the home of at least one senior militant leader, while security in the West Bank and Jerusalem was heavy after a night of Palestinian protests.

As the Israeli offensive against the militant group Hamas entered its 18th day, the Palestinian death toll reached 815 people, most of them civilians, Palestinian officials said. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have been killed, along with three civilians on the Israeli side, one of them a foreign worker from Thailand.

Israel and Hamas were both reported to be weighing a call for a humanitarian truce of at least five days put forth by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has shuttled around the region this week in a bid to stem the fighting. A previous Egyptian-authored cease-fire plan last week was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas.

Israel’s security Cabinet — its inner circle of senior officials — was to meet Friday to consider the plan, laid out by Kerry on a visit to Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday.

The day also marks the final Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, and a feast was expected to begin Sunday or Monday. The upcoming occasion lends symbolic weight to a proposed short-term halt to hostilities.

But Friday, the main Muslim prayer day of the week, is also a traditional flash point for protests, and the Palestinian Fatah movement called for a “day of rage” in solidarity with those suffering in Gaza. Thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces on Thursday night in Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and a main crossing point between Israel and the West Bank. At least one protester was killed.

The demonstrations, the most serious since the start of the offensive, were sparked by at least 15 deaths in explosions at a U.N. shelter in northern Gaza on Thursday. Hamas blamed Israel, but the Israeli military said the incident was still under investigation, leaving open the possibility that errant rocket fire from militants might have been to blame.

Meanwhile, Hamas and other fighters in Gaza unleashed a new volley of rockets at Israel, most of them intercepted by its antimissile defense system. One scored a direct hit on an apartment building in the southern town of Ashkelon, causing damage but no injuries.

Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, the country’s main international gateway, remained hobbled by flight cancellations on Friday, even though aviation safety officials in the United States and Europe had lifted a flight suspension imposed after a rocket fell near the airport on Tuesday. Most United States, European, and regional carriers were still refraining from takeoffs and landings at Ben Gurion, though Israel’s national airline El Al kept flying.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Cairo. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Carolyn Cole

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Gaza Death Toll Tops 700 As Cease-Fire Remains Elusive

Gaza Death Toll Tops 700 As Cease-Fire Remains Elusive

By Batsheva Sobelman and Laura King, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israel again pounded the Gaza Strip with bombardment on Thursday, driving up the Palestinian death toll to at least 720, while militants fired a flurry of rockets into Israeli territory, with most either falling harmlessly or intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.

In the 17th day of the confrontation between Israeli forces and the militant group Hamas, diplomatic efforts were moving ahead on a number of fronts, though a cease-fire accord remained elusive. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, back in Cairo after a day of shuttle diplomacy in Israel and the West Bank, was conferring Thursday with Egyptian officials, according to Egyptian media reports.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed hope for a speedy truce. While acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, Hammond said his government was “gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level” of civilian deaths and injuries in Gaza.

“We want to see a cease-fire quickly agreed (upon),” he said.

Netanyahu said Israel was trying to minimize civilian casualties, but declared that “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”

Israel said it had detained dozens of suspected militants overnight in Gaza, and Israeli media carried images of the captured men in their underwear being marched toward or across the frontier, bound for a military detention center in southern Israel.

Israeli media reports also cited military sources as saying that 500 militants affiliated with Hamas or other Islamist armed groups have been killed since the start of the offensive. However, estimates from the United Nations and others have estimated that up to three-fourths of the dead are civilians, many of them women and children.

For a third day on Thursday, most international flights to and from Tel Aviv were canceled, after a rocket fell Tuesday near Ben Gurion International Airport. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration late Wednesday lifted a ban on American carriers flying into or out of Ben Gurion, but only US Airways had so far announced a resumption of service, and most European and regional airlines were continuing their suspensions.

Israel’s summer tourism season, already dampened by the outbreak of fighting, has been hit hard by the curtailed air service, and industry officials were voicing concern about long-term economic damage. Hamas has trumpeted the flight suspensions as an important military success.

While most of Israel’s casualties have been military — with 32 troops killed to date — three civilians have died on the Israeli side of the frontier. After a Thai farm worker was killed Wednesday by a mortar in the fields of a farm community close to Gaza, Thailand urged Israel to transfer about 4,000 of its nationals to safer areas and provide better protection for them.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Cairo.

AFP Photo / Jack Guez

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