Netanyahu vows to fight on as Biden urges Gaza ‘de-escalation’

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Andrea Shalal

GAZA/JERUSALEM/ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with operations against Gaza’s ruling Hamas militants after U.S. President Joe Biden urged him to seek a “de-escalation” on Wednesday in the 10-day conflict on the path to a ceasefire.

An Egyptian security source said the two sides had agreed in principle to a ceasefire after help from mediators, although details were still being negotiated in secret amid public denials of a deal to prevent it from collapsing.

Palestinian medical officials said that since fighting began on May 10, 227 people had been killed in aerial bombardments that have destroyed roads, buildings and other infrastructure, and worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Israeli authorities put the death toll at 12 in Israel, where repeated rocket attacks have caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters. Regional and U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire have intensified but so far failed.

Netanyahu has repeatedly hailed what he has described as support from the United States, Israel’s main ally, for a right to self-defense in battling rocket attacks from Gaza.

But Biden put the Israeli leader on notice in a telephone call that it was time to lower the intensity of the conflict.

“The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

“The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

‘QUIET AND SECURITY’

In a statement released soon after her comments, Netanyahu said: “I am determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved – to restore quiet and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

Earlier, in remarks reported by Israeli media from a closed question-and-answer session with foreign envoys to Israel, Netanyahu was quoted as saying: “We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe.”

In response to Biden’s de-escalation call, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassam said those who sought to restore calm must “compel Israel to end its aggression in Jerusalem and its bombardment of Gaza”.

Once that happened, Qassam said, “there can be room to talk about arrangements to restore calm”.

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 in retaliation for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The rocket attacks followed Israeli security police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighborhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

In a 25-minute attack overnight into Wednesday, Israel bombarded targets including what its military said were tunnels in southern Gaza used by Hamas.

Some 50 rockets were fired from the enclave, the Israeli military said, with sirens sounding in the coastal city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, and in areas closer to the Gaza border. There were no reports of injuries or damage overnight but days of rocket fire have unsettled many Israelis.

CRATERS AND RUBBLE

Nearly 450 buildings in densely populated Gaza have been destroyed or badly damaged, including six hospitals and nine primary-care health centers, and more than 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced, the U.N. humanitarian agency said.

The damage has left large craters and piles of rubble across the coastal enclave.

“Whoever wants to learn about the humanity of the (Israelis) should come to the Gaza Strip and look at the houses that got destroyed on top of those who lived in them,” said university lecturer Ahmed al-Astal, standing by the rubble of his house in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

He said there had been no warning before his home was destroyed in an air strike before dawn.

Israel says it issues warnings to evacuate buildings that are to be fired on and that it attacks only what it regards as military targets.

The hostilities are the most serious between Hamas and Israel in years, and, in a departure from previous Gaza conflicts, have helped fuel street violence in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs.

The conflict has also spilled over to the Israel-Lebanon frontier and stoked violence in the occupied West Bank.

Four rockets were launched towards Israel from Lebanon on Wednesday, the third such incident since the Gaza conflict began, the military said. Israeli forces responded with artillery fire towards targets in Lebanon.

There was no claim of responsibility for the rocket attack.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian woman who the military said had fired a rifle at troops and civilians at a bus stop near the city of Hebron.

At least 21 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops or other incidents in the West Bank since May 10, Palestinian health officials said.

The latest deaths in Gaza included three Palestinians killed in overnight air strikes, one of them a journalist with Hamas’s Al-Aqsa radio station, officials said.

Gaza medical officials say the Palestinian death toll includes 64 children, and that more than 1,600 people have been wounded since the fighting began. Israeli authorities say the death toll in Israel includes two children.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney, Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

World powers urge truce as Israel-Palestinian conflict rages

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel bombarded Gaza with air strikes and Palestinian militants resumed cross-border rocket fire on Tuesday after a brief overnight lull during which the U.N. sent a small fuel convoy into the enclave, where it says 52,000 people are now displaced.

Israeli leaders said they were pressing on with an offensive to destroy the capabilities of the armed factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad, amid calls by the United States and other world powers for an end to the conflict.

Two Thai workers were killed and seven people were wounded in a rocket strike on an Israeli farm just over the Gaza border, police said. Gaza’s ruling Hamas Islamist group and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

Rockets were also launched at the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba, further north.

Gaza residents said Israel was keeping up intense air strikes. Witnesses said an Israeli tank shell hit a paint factory in the southern Gaza Strip, setting it on fire.

“We will continue as long as it takes in order to restore calm for all of Israel’s citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reaffirming remarks he has made over the past several days, said in a video clip on Twitter.

“One other thing: I’m sure that all of our enemies around us see the price we are exacting for the aggression against us and I am certain that they will have absorbed that lesson,” he said, speaking in an air base hangar with a warplane behind him.

Hamas began firing rockets eight days ago in retaliation for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The current hostilities are the most serious between the militant group and Israel in years, and in a departure from previous Gaza conflicts have helped to fuel violence in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs.

Gaza medical officials say 215 Palestinians have been killed, including 61 children and 36 women, and more than 1,400 wounded. Israeli authorities say 12 people have been killed in Israel, including two children.

Nearly 450 buildings in the Gaza strip have been destroyed or badly damaged, including six hospitals and nine primary care health centers, the United Nations humanitarian agency said. Some 47,000 of the 52,000 displaced had fled to U.N. schools.

Israel said more than 3,450 rockets have been launched at it from Gaza, some falling short and others shot down by its Iron Dome air defenses.

On Tuesday, the army said a soldier was slightly injured when a shell was fired after it allowed the fuel convoy into Gaza. It says its forces have killed around 130 Hamas fighters and another 30 from Islamic Jihad.

CEASEFIRE CALLS

On Twitter, Netanyahu said Israel’s attacks against Gaza militants had “set Hamas back many years” – which some Israeli news commentators took as a possible prelude to a ceasefire within days when he could claim victory.

But Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, said the picture was more complicated, citing civil unrest in Israel, mounting protests by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and a trickle of rocket fire from Lebanon.

“As far as (Hamas) is concerned, what’s happening in the West Bank and maybe with (the Lebanese group) Hezbollah and Israel’s Arab citizens – this is where it has won,” Yadlin said on Channel 12 TV. “In the military game, they’ve lost.”

On a visit to Iceland, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had received further information requested from Israel about its destruction of a Gaza high-rise that housed the local offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera news organizations.

Blinken gave no details about the information he said came through intelligence channels about Saturday’s attack.

Israel has said publicly a Hamas intelligence office had been situated in the building, whose occupants were warned by the Israeli military in advance to evacuate.

Calling Netanyahu on Monday night, U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel had the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks but encouraged it to make every effort to protect civilians, the White House said.

Egypt and U.N. mediators also stepped up diplomatic efforts, and the U.N. General Assembly will discuss the violence on Thursday.

Germany called for a ceasefire and offered more aid to help Palestinians before emergency European Union talks.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Ramadan clashes between police and worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem have caused anger among Palestinians.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian who tried to attack them with a gun and improvised explosives, and an unmanned aerial vehicle was downed near the border with Jordan on Tuesday, Israel’s military said.

Another Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces at a West Bank protest, health officials said. The military said soldiers had come under fire, which wounded two of them, and shot back.

General strikes were held on Tuesday in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, Arab towns within Israel and in cities in the West Bank.

(Additional reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer and Stephen Farrell and Steven Scheer in Jerusalem and Zainah El-Haroun and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Timothy Heritage, Philippa Fletcher and Giles Elgood)

ICC prosecutor warns against crimes in escalating Israel-Palestinian violence

By Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (Reuters) – Individuals involved in a new eruption of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed may be targeted by an International Criminal Court investigation now under way into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict, its top prosecutor said in an interview.

The ICC’s Fatou Bensouda told Reuters she would press ahead with her inquiry even without the cooperation of Israel, which accuses her office of anti-Semitic bias and – like its closest ally the United States – rejected membership in the treaty-based court, objecting to its jurisdiction. Israel and Palestinian Islamist groups plunged this week into their fiercest round of fighting since 2014, with punishing Israeli air strikes on Gaza and militants based in the densely populated enclave firing over 1,600 rockets into Israel. At least 83 Palestinians and seven Israelis have died.

“These are events that we are looking at very seriously,” Bensouda said. “We are monitoring very closely and I remind that an investigation has opened and the evolution of these events could also be something we look at.”

In March her office said it was opening a formal investigation into suspected war crimes in the conflict after nearly five years of preliminary inquiries.

It said it had reasonable basis to believe offences had been committed by both the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups, including militants of the Hamas group, in the Gaza Strip and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“This is just to alert people on all sides not to escalate, to be careful to avoid taking actions that will result in the commission of (war) crimes,” Bensouda said in a reference to the current hostilities.

The ICC, based in The Hague, is an independent, permanent war crimes court that succeeded ad hoc U.N. tribunals which tackled the 1990s Rwandan genocide and Yugoslav conflict. It prosecutes individuals, not countries, when a member state is unwilling or unable to do so itself.

‘POLITICALLY FRAUGHT’ INVESTIGATION

The ICC is examining whether Israeli forces committed war crimes – including disproportionate attacks and willful killings of civilians – during the 2014 Gaza war when Israeli armored forces swept into the heavily urbanized enclave.

It is also probing whether Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other Palestinian armed factions carried out intentional attacks on civilians with rocket fire into Israel, as well as torture and killings of Palestinians by Palestinian security services.

While the investigation is “politically fraught”, Bensouda said, she denied accusations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that her office was biased, or was singling out the state of Israel.

“It is regrettable and indeed unfortunate that these are the reactions that the prime minister would have. This is far from the truth,” said Bensouda, a Gambian who will be replaced by Britain’s Karim Khan when her nine-year term ends next month.

Bensouda said the decision to pursue the investigation was anchored “in the law”, not politics.

“There is a lot of rhetoric. There is also unfortunately a lot of misinformation about what this case is and what it is not…And there is a lot of spinning about the ICC, trying to portray (it) as being biased, one-sided…which is not the case. We are always very impartial. We are always very objective.”

Bensouda said her investigators met regularly with Israeli and Palestinian officials about the ICC’s preliminary inquiries to create transparency and give both sides a fair opportunity to present their positions.

“This is perhaps even more complex than what we have faced before,” Bensouda said, “but yes, at the moment there are signs there will be no cooperation whatsoever from one side…, and (we) will have to look for a way to deal with that.”

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises self-rule in parts of the West Bank but has no power in Gaza, is an ICC member and has repeatedly urged it to prosecute Israelis over alleged crimes in wars in 2014 and 2008-09.

More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the seven-week Gaza war in 2014, which saw a devastating Israeli offensive into the enclave during which thousands of homes were razed, along with 73 Israelis from rockets fired out of Gaza into Israel.

This time around, many more Gaza rockets are crashing into Israel’s commercial heartland, while Israel said it had bombed close to a thousand militant targets in Gaza and has massed tanks and troops along the enclave’s border.

Asked about the ICC investigation, Israel military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israeli forces were “committed to international law” and that Hamas militants should be prosecuted.

“Hamas is a globally recognized terrorist organization that should be held accountable for its crimes, its blatant disregard for human life,” he told Reuters.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Palestinian militant groups were carrying out a “natural right of self-defense” and it was Israeli leaders the ICC should prosecute.

“Our people are the victims of the aggression conducted by the Israeli occupation, which is carrying out all forms of killing and terrorism against our people,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Zainah El-Haroun in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. sends envoy as Israel-Gaza barrages spiral, Hamas commander killed

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel killed a Hamas commander and vowed no let-up in its Gaza barrages on Wednesday as Palestinian militants rained rockets far across the border and Washington dispatched an envoy to try to calm their most intense hostilities in years.

At least 65 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Gaza City brigade commander and 15 other members of the Islamist militant group were killed in air strikes.

“This is just the beginning. We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamed possible,” he said.

After the announcement, fresh rocket salvoes were fired at the Tel Aviv area and the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Sderot.

Hamas confirmed the death of the commander and of “other leaders and holy warriors” in a statement. Its chief Ismail Haniyeh added: “The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended.”

Israel launched its military action after Hamas fired rockets in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including at a holy site during the fasting month of Ramadan. A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress to end the violence.

Describing the scenes of destruction as “harrowing”, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a senior aide, Hady Amr, would be sent to urge Israelis and Palestinians to seek calm.

Israel pledged to keep pummeling Hamas.

“A ‘truce’ is not part of the jargon on our lips, certainly not in the coming day or two,” military spokesman Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman told public broadcaster Kan.

Israel’s military said its strikes were targeting rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.

“Israel has gone crazy,” said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked buildings.

Many Palestinians in Gaza are hoping for a reprieve on Thursday, the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reaffirmed “ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself”.

The fighting is the heaviest since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave, and concern is growing that the situation could spiral out of control.

In Gaza, two multi-story residential buildings and a tower housing media outlets, including one linked to Hamas, collapsed after Israel warned occupants in advance to evacuate, and another structure was heavily damaged in the air strikes.

Twenty-four people were killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Wednesday, Gaza’s health ministry said. Many in Israel also spent a sleepless night as waves of rockets hit its heartland, some blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.

“The children have escaped the coronavirus, and now a new trauma,” an Israeli woman in the coastal city of Ashkelon told Channel 11 TV.

Israelis ran to shelters or lay on pavements in some communities far from Gaza.

“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

Along the Gaza border, an Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile, the military said. Two people were killed by a rocket in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town near Tel Aviv.

Tension also spilled over into Israel’s 21% Arab minority, some of whom have mounted pro-Palestinian protests. After a synagogue was torched in Lod, police deployed paramilitary reinforcements and announced a curfew.

GAS PLATFORM SHUT, FLIGHTS CANCELLED

U.S. energy corporation Chevron said it had shut down the Tamar natural gas platform off the Israeli coast on the instruction of the Energy Ministry. Israel said its energy needs would continue to be met.

At least two U.S. airlines cancelled flights from the United States to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Thursday. Israel, whose Ben Gurion Airport briefly suspended operations on Monday after a rocket barrage on Tel Aviv, said national airline El Al stood ready to provide supplemental flights.

For Israel, the targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas, regarded as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension during Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

These escalated ahead of a court hearing – now postponed – that could lead to the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after Israel’s inconclusive March 23 election.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank. Medical sources said a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli forces on Wednesday.

Gaza’s health ministry said 16 of the people killed in the enclave were children. The Israeli military said 200 of more than 1,000 rockets fired by Gaza factions had fallen short, potentially causing some Palestinian civilian casualties.

Five of the fatalities in Israel were civilians, including a child and an Indian worker, medical officials said.

Israel has dispatched infantry and armor to reinforce tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of its last ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.

Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians have been frustrated as their aspirations for an independent state have suffered setbacks in recent years.

These include Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a U.S. plan to end the conflict that they saw as favourable to Israel, and continued settlement building.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch and Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood, Peter Graff)

Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 30 Palestinians and three Israelis, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the Islamist militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential Gaza block collapsed after one of several dozen air strikes. Late into the night, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with near-constant Israeli strikes.

Israelis ran for shelters in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks alongside his defense minister and military chief.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence … their blood is forfeit.”

Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.

The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech that Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem “must be a place of co-existence.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily news briefing with a statement about the situation, saying that President Joe Biden’s primary focus was on de-escalation.

The United States was delaying U.N. Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the U.S. strategy.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Washington is “actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties to achieve a ceasefire” and was concerned that a council statement might be counterproductive at the moment.

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armor to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks, in 2014.

More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed.

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the Gaza block as it toppled over. Electricity in the surrounding area went out.

Residents of the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area around an hour before the air strike, according to witnesses, and there were no reports of casualties two hours after it collapsed.

People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens and explosions were heard around the city. Pedestrians ran for shelter, and diners streamed out of restaurants while others flattened themselves on pavements as the sirens sounded.

The Israel Airports Authority said it had halted take-offs at Tel Aviv airport “to allow defense of the nation’s skies,” but later resumed them.

Video broadcast on Israeli Channel 12 television showed interceptor missiles rising above the runways.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.

“The recent rockets in Israel and air strikes in Gaza represent a dangerous escalation of the tensions and violence witnessed over the past days in Jerusalem, including its Old City,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on the southern city of Ashkelon.

But the Israeli military said many of the rockets fired from Gaza had fallen short and wounded Palestinians, and that Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses had intercepted the bulk of those that made it across the border.

Violence has also ticked up in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller)

Rebels attack Myanmar army near border, junta knocks back ASEAN plan

(Reuters) – Ethnic minority Karen insurgents attacked a Myanmar army outpost near the Thai border on Tuesday in some of the most intense clashes since a military coup nearly three months ago threw the country into crisis.

The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest rebel force, said it had captured the army camp on the west bank of the Salween river, which forms the border with Thailand.

The Myanmar military later hit back against the insurgents with air strikes, the KNU and Thai authorities said.

The fighting took place as the junta, in a setback for diplomatic efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said it would “positively” consider the bloc’s suggestions to end the turmoil in Myanmar but only when stability was restored.

The ASEAN leaders said after meeting on the weekend with the junta chief that they had reached a consensus on steps to end violence and promote dialogue between the rival Myanmar sides.

The outbreak of hostilities near the border shifted the focus of opposition to the junta away from the pro-democracy protests that have taken place in cities and towns across the country since the coup on Feb. 1.

The military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, detained her and other civilian politicians, then cracked down with lethal force on anti-coup protesters.

Security forces have killed more than 750 civilians in the demonstrations, an activist group says.

The Karen and other ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta.

PRE-DAWN ATTACK

In Tuesday’s fighting, villagers on the Thai side of the river said heavy gunfire started before dawn.

Video posted on social media showed flames and smoke on the forested hillside and KNU forces had captured the outpost, the group’s head of foreign affairs, Saw Taw Nee, told Reuters.

The Myanmar military later mounted air strikes, Saw Taw Nee said. There was no word on casualties and 450 Thai villagers were moved away from the border to safety, the Thai military said.

The Myanmar army made no comment. It has historically portrayed itself as the one institution that can keep together the ethnically diverse country of more than 53 million people.

The KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending its struggle for autonomy that began shortly after Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948.

But its forces have clashed with the army since it seized power, ending a decade of democratic reforms that had also brought relative peace to Myanmar’s borderlands.

Fighting has also flared in the north and west, where the Irrawaddy news site reported 13 government soldiers were killed in clashes in Chin State over the past few days.

About 24,000 people are sheltering in the jungle after being displaced in recent weeks by violence near the Thai border, including military air strikes, Karen groups say.

‘CAREFUL CONSIDERATION’

Elsewhere in Myanmar, there have been few reports of bloodshed since the weekend meeting between the junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and Southeast Asian leaders to try to find a way out of the crisis.

The junta, in its first official comment on the meeting, said it would give “careful consideration to constructive suggestions … when the situation returns to stability”.

The suggestions would be “positively considered” if they facilitated the junta’s own “roadmap,” and “serves the interests of the country,” it said in a statement.

The junta did not refer to what ASEAN called a five-point consensus, issued at the end of the meeting, to end the violence and initiate talks.

ASEAN’s points included appointing an envoy to visit Myanmar for talks with all sides. But Min Aung Hlaing, in comments reported in state media, said: “The visits to Myanmar proposed by ASEAN will be considered after stabilizing the country.”

U.N. Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews called on Min Aung Hlaing to make a commitment to live up to the ASEAN plan.

“The people of Myanmar…need and deserve to know if it is your intention to honor this commitment,” Andrews said in an open letter.

Activists have criticized the plan, saying it helped to legitimize the junta and fell far short of their demands.

In particular, it did not call for the release of Suu Kyi, 75, and other political prisoners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group says more than 3,400 people have been detained for opposing the coup.

Suu Kyi’s party won a second term in November. The election commission said the vote was fair but the military said fraud at the polls had forced it to seize power.

Protesters against the junta were out in several places on Tuesday including the main city of Yangon, where hundreds surged down a street in a “flash mob” march, images on social media showed.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin and Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

Thailand denies forcing back Myanmar refugees blocked at border

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

MAE SARIANG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thai authorities on Monday denied forcing back more than 2,000 refugees who had fled air strikes in Myanmar, but a local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.

Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by a force from the Karen ethnic group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s army.

Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters that thousands of people had been forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. Another activist group gave the number as 2,009.

Video shot by a Karen villager and published by Reuters showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers.

“Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see old people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager is heard saying. Authorities stopped Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement, also saying the reports that the Karens had been pushed back were inaccurate.

“BLOCK THOSE THAT FLED”

But Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, told a local meeting that those fleeing should be blocked.

“All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” he said, referring to the government’s security coordinating body.

“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground and we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden.”

Tanee told Reuters he had no further comment on what the local official had said.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human rights groups and the European Karen Network, a foreign based support group, criticized the Thai government.

“Thailand’s heartless and illegal act must stop now,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting Myanmar’s junta.

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since seizing power as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The army, which has waged decades of wars against ethnic armed groups, carried out its coup saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Poppy McPherson and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Israel launches major air strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Israel launched an air attack against Iranian-linked targets in Syria near the main border crossing to Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday, one of the biggest strikes yet in a campaign that has escalated in the Trump administration’s final weeks.

Israel has been stepping up strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, part of aggressive posture adopted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week in what could bring a reassessment of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.

Syrian news agency SANA and Syrian state media said Israel had struck sites in Al Bukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The highway is part of the main over ground supply route linking Iran to its proxy fighters in Syria and Lebanon.

The Syrian reports also said Israeli strikes had hit areas in Deir al Zor province, where Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fighters have a heavy presence.

Two residents in the regional capital Deir al Zor City told Reuters they could hear the distant sound of huge explosions, apparently from arms depots destroyed in the raids.

Israel’s military did not immediately comment. Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli government minister, told Israeli radio he would not discuss the specific reports, but that Israel hit Iranian targets in Syria “whenever our intelligence dictates it and according to our operational capability.”

The United States has a small number of troops at Tanf, a base in Syria near Al Bukamal, the main city struck by Wednesday’s Israeli raid. Western intelligence sources say Israel’s stepped up strikes on Syria in the last few months are part of a shadow war approved by the Trump administration.

Israel’s Defense Force Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said last month that missile strikes had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria” adding they had hit more than 500 targets in 2020.

Israel has said its goal is to end Tehran’s military presence, which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in Syria in recent years.

A regional intelligence source said the targets included Syrian security compounds inside Al Bukamal and Deir Zor, while in the past raids had struck only the cities’ outskirts.

The latest raids were notable for having hit “advanced weaponry and weapons depots … in a large combat arena,” the regional intelligence source said.

Iran’s proxy militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah now hold sway over vast areas in eastern, southern and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. They also control Lebanese-Syrian border areas.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. carries out air strike on Taliban, calls for halt to ‘needless attacks’

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday carried out its first air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan since the two sides signed a troop withdrawal agreement on Saturday.

A U.S. forces spokesman confirmed the incident in southern Helmand province, hours after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund on Tuesday, the first known conversation between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official.

The Taliban fighters “were actively attacking an (Afghan National Security Forces) checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a tweet.

He said Washington was committed to peace but would defend Afghan forces if needed.

“Taliban leadership promised the (international) community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments,” he said.

The air strike was the first by the United States against the Taliban in 11 days, when a reduction in violence agreement had begun between the sides in the lead up to Saturday’s pact.

Since the signing, the Taliban had decided on Monday to resume normal operations against Afghan forces, though sources have said they will continue to hold back on attacks on foreign forces.

The Taliban has declined to confirm or deny responsibility for any of the attacks.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a Tweet that “according to the plan (the Taliban) is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced.”

A Taliban senior commander in Helmand who declined to be named said that a drone had targeted their position.

“As far as I know we didn’t suffer any human losses but we are working on it and sent our team to the area,” he told Reuters, adding that the group’s senior leadership in Afghanistan had called an emergency meeting to discuss what he described as a “major violation” of the agreement.

“THINGS COULD SPIRAL”

Experts said the public agreement was vague on details around ongoing violence in the country, but that the air strike and comments from U.S. officials suggested the United States had a plan to ensure reduced violence against Afghan forces and civilians.

“It is significant. I don’t think it signals the collapse of the whole U.S.-Taliban agreement…(but) you can easily see how things could spiral,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst covering Afghanistan at International Crisis Group.

A spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor said the Taliban had attacked a security checkpoint in Washer district – a different district to the one in which the U.S. carried out its air strike – on Tuesday evening, killing two police officers.

An interior ministry spokesman, Nasrat Rahimi, said on Wednesday the Taliban had conducted 30 attacks in 15 provinces in the previous 24 hours, killing four civilians and 11 security and defense force members. Seventeen Taliban members had been killed, he said.

The weekend agreement envisages a full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces within 14 months, dependent on security guarantees by the Taliban, but faces a number of hurdles as the United States tries to shepherd the Taliban and Afghan government toward talks.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul; additional reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Sardar Razmal in Kunduz, Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)

Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.

“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.

It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.

Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators. It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.

In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.

“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move. We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.

Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.

The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed. Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.

Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)