JERUALEM: Israeli forces struck targets in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing one Palestinian and wounding over 30 others as militants launched dozens of rockets in some of the heaviest fighting the area has seen in months.
The flare-up increases pressure on the Israeli government to put an end to the violence, which escalated over the weekend and could turn into a major conflagration just two months before the country’s general election.
Israeli leaders quickly amped up their rhetoric, warning Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers they will pay a heavy price should they allow rocket fire toward Israel continue.
“The world must understand that Israel will not sit idly in the face of attempts to attack us,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are prepared to intensify the response.”
Egyptian intelligence officials have been mediating between Israel and Hamas in order to reach a cease-fire agreement that would put an end to the two-day cross-border escalation.
Low-level cross-border fighting is common in the border area, but clashes escalated Thursday night when an explosives-packed tunnel under the Gaza-Israel frontier blew up, in what the Israeli military called an attempt by Palestinian militants to kill or kidnap soldiers. Palestinians said the blast was a roadside bomb to avenge an 11-year-old boy shot dead earlier in the evening, during an exchange of fire with Israelis.
Then on Saturday, militants fired an anti-tank missile into an Israeli military jeep patrolling the border fence, wounding four soldiers — one critically. Casualties of that order are rare for the Israeli side.
In response, Israel launched airstrikes that have killed six Gazans and wounded almost 40. Palestinian rocket and mortar barrages have wounded four Israeli civilians and kept a large swath of the country running for cover. The military said more than 80 rockets had landed in Israel and 12,000 Israeli students stayed home from school yesterday. Later in the day, the military said a Palestinian rocket made a direct hit on an Israeli home in the town of Sderot. No injuries were reported.
Yesterday, Palestinian medics said the death toll stood at six, after an Islamic Jihad militant named as Mohammed Shwikani, 20, was killed in an air strike near the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya. Medics also reported yesterday finding the body of a second Jihad member, Mohammed Abed, 20, who was killed in another air raid east of Jabaliya.The Israeli military said it had attacked seven different targets overnight, including arms dumps, a weapons-making facility and two rocket-launching sites “in response to recent events.”
Medics said 35 people were wounded, with Ashraf Al Qudra, spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry, saying 10 had undergone amputations. He named the four civilians killed as 20-year-old Matar Abul Ata, 17-year-old Mohammed Harara, 15-year-old Ahmed Harara and 18-year-old Ahmed Dardasawy.
A British newspaper reported yesterday that Israel may luanch ground invasion into the Gaza Strip if Palestinians keep on firing rockets and mortars against the Jewish state. One unnamed senior Israeli government official told The Telegraph that “a ground incursion is certainly not out of the question although we hope it won’t come to that.”
The violence prompted authorities on both sides of the border to close some schools, and in Gaza the Hamas government and militant groups vowed revenge.
“The occupation attacked Palestinian civilians east of Gaza City and Khan Yunis. We consider this escalation as very dangerous. It must stop immediately,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum. The radical Popular Resistance Committees vowed that “the Zionist enemy will pay a high price for this crime against Gaza.” And Islamic Jihad warned that “every aggression against the Palestinian people will be followed by a response from the resistance.”
In December 2008, just six weeks before general elections, Israel launched a huge operation in Gaza against rocket fire, which killed 1,400 Palestinians - half of them civilians - and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.
After not openly taking part in Saturday’s fighting, which included the firing of dozens of Palestinian short-range rockets and mortar bombs, Hamas issued a joint statement with five other factions claiming responsibility for yesterday’s fresh salvoes. Though hostile to the Jewish state, Islamist Hamas has in the past avoided clashes as it consolidates its Gaza rule and convince Egypt’s new rulers it can be a stabilising force.
Israeli officials have at times noted Hamas’ efforts to impose calm in Gaza, which it has governed since 2007, and maintain a policy of holding it solely responsible for any violence from the coastal territory, whoever is firing. Islamic Jihad, a smaller faction than Hamas which often operates independently, said one rocket crewman was killed by an Israeli air strike yesterday, after another member was killed on Saturday while photographing the fighting.