Ethiopian families fleeing fighting describe hunger, rape in Amhara

By Giulia Paravicini, Dawit Endeshaw and Maggie Fick

DESSIE, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The pictures on her phone are all that Ethiopian mother Habtam Akele has left of her three-year-old daughter Saba. The girl died of malnutrition last month before the family was able to flee south, deeper into Ethiopia’s Amhara region.

“They (doctors) told me she has been severely affected by malnutrition and they cannot help. Then they gave me some syrup and tablets. She passed away exactly a week later,” Habtam told Reuters earlier this month, clutching her surviving nine-month-old baby.

Habtam is among an influx of thousands of Amhara families fleeing to the town of Dessie from fighting further north. Officials warn the already overcrowded makeshift camps, where displaced people sleep in rows in school classrooms, will fill further after renewed clashes.

Conflict erupted between the ruling party of the rebellious northern region of Tigray – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and the Ethiopian central government last November.

In July, the TPLF pushed into the neighboring region of Amhara, whose forces had fought alongside the military against the Tigrayans, as well as into the region of Afar.

The Tigrayan advance forced around 250,000 people to flee their homes in Amhara, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September.

On Monday, the TPLF said the Ethiopian military had launched an offensive to try to dislodge the Tigrayan fighters from Amhara, following a barrage of air strikes reported last week.

The military and government have not answered calls seeking information on the offensive, but a post on the military’s official Facebook page said “they (the TPLF) have opened war on all fronts” and said the military was inflicting heavy casualties.

Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilize Ethiopia, a nation of 109 million people, and deepen hunger in Tigray and the surrounding regions.

Habtam said there was little food in the areas under Tigrayan control and that Tigrayan forces took scarce medicines from local pharmacies.

Getachew Reda, the spokesman for the TPLF, told Reuters that Tigrayan forces had not looted pharmacies that supplied local populations and had set up a generator to alleviate water shortages in Habtam’s area.

Reuters had no way of independently verifying Habtam’s account since her home, to the north in Kobo, is off-limits to journalists due to fighting and phone connections to the area are down.

ARMED MAN

The United Nations has said that the Ethiopian government is only letting a trickle of food trucks and no medicines or fuel into Tigray despite estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are in famine conditions there – a charge the government denies. Hospitals there have run out of crucial medicines.

Both sides accuse each other of committing atrocities. Reuters has previously documented gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians in Tigray, and some Amhara residents told Reuters that Tigrayans were also committing abuses in territory they control. Both sides have denied the allegations.

Another woman at the camps told Reuters that she had been raped by an armed man speaking Tigrinya, the language of Tigray, in an area of Amhara under Tigrayan control. Saada, 28, told Reuters she had been attacked in her house in Mersa, 80 km north of Dessie, by the armed man in plain clothes. She did not recall the exact date but said it was around the end of August.

“He said to me ‘We left our houses both to kill and to die. I am from the jungle so, I have all the right to do whatever I want. I can even kill you’ and he raised his gun to me and threatened to kill me,” she said. “Then he raped me.”

She provided a card showing she had visited Dessie Comprehensive Specialized Hospital for treatment. She asked Reuters not to use her full name to protect her from reprisals.

Leul Mesfin, the medical director of Dessie hospital declined to answer questions about civilian injuries or rapes, or individual cases, because he said he did not trust foreign journalists.

When asked about the rape, Getachew of the TPLF said any reported incident would be investigated and that the actions of one man should not implicate Tigrayan forces in general.

“I can’t vouch for each and every off-breed idiot who masquerades as a fighter,” he said. “There are millions of (men with) guns there.”

(Maggie Fick reported from Nairobi; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alison Williams)

Taliban target provincial Afghan cities in response to U.S. strikes, commanders say

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Taliban militants have switched strategy from targeting rural areas of Afghanistan to attacking provincial cities, in response to increased U.S. air strikes after the United States said it was ending its longest war, three militant commanders said.

The Taliban have stepped up their campaign to defeat the U.S.-backed government as foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of conflict.

A regional U.S. commander said late last month the United States had increased air strikes to counter growing Taliban attacks, a move condemned by the Islamist group.

Fighting has been particularly heavy inside the city of Herat, near the western border with Iran, Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province in the southwest, and Kandahar in the south.

The three Taliban commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that they were focused on capturing Herat and Kandahar, with Lashkar Gah in their sights.

“Mullah Yaqoob argued that when U.S. didn’t fulfill their commitment why should Taliban be made to follow the accord?” said one of the commanders, based in Kandahar, referring to the group’s military chief.

“Mullah Yaqoob has decided to capture Kandahar and Herat and now Helmand and then it could be Kunduz, Khost or any other province,” said the commander, saying the military leader’s arguments had won over the group’s political office.

A Taliban spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Taliban negotiator Suhail Shaheen told Reuters the group was continuing its policy of seizing control of rural areas and implementing Islamic Sharia there, rather than focusing on cities.

The Taliban, who ruled with an iron hand from 1996 until 2001, had said previously they would focus on lucrative border crossings and large rural areas, though they have encircled and at times entered provincial capitals.

The group has been waging a massive nationwide offensive since April when President Joe Biden announced troops would withdraw by September and as officials warned peace talks in Doha were failing to make substantive progress.

In recent weeks, there have been sustained attacks on Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gar, stretching Afghan special forces thin and killing dozens of civilians.

FIGHTING ‘NOT LIMITED TO PERIPHERIES’

“The operations in Kandahar and Herat are very much important to us and our priority is to capture the two crucial airports or airbases in Kandahar and Herat,” the Taliban commander in Kandahar said.

Officials and experts said they saw signs of a change in strategy last month.

“Taliban are pushing against the provincial capitals … not just to exert pressure but to capture them,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst from Stanford University.

“The main evidence is the extent of their breach of these cities. Fighting is not limited to the peripheries any more. This switch in Taliban strategy has been formalized after Eid, though Taliban forces were putting serious pressure on Kandahar even before Eid.”

The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was celebrated last month.

Kandahar and Herat are the second- and third-largest cities of Afghanistan by population. Experts said their loss would be a major political blow to the government and could potentially trigger major realignments in favor of the Taliban.

“Capture of Kandahar means a lot to the Taliban. It was their capital and occupying the city is great morale boost for the Taliban… This is something they cherish and for Kandahar, Taliban can risk international ire,” said an Asian diplomatic source closely following the Taliban.

A Western security official said: “The fact they are attacking (cities) is a sharp reaction to air support offered by the U.S. … The Taliban have proven that now they will not just stop with controlling trading points.”

It is not clear whether U.S. airstrikes would continue after foreign forces complete their withdrawal.

A spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Experts and officials say that for now a military takeover of Kabul would be much more difficult for the Taliban than provincial capitals, but that the group could increase bombings and attacks to undermine security and public morale.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack at the acting defense minister’s residence on Tuesday and warned of further violence.

(Reporting by Kabul/Peshawar newsrooms; Additional reporting by India newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. warplanes strike Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.

The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Iran called on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.

“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

In an apparent indication that Baghdad is determined to avoid getting sucked into a U.S.-Iran escalation, Iraq’s military issued a rare condemnation of the U.S. strikes. The Iraqi and U.S. militaries continue close coordination in a separate battle in Iraq, fighting remnants of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.

U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Lewis, William Maclean)

WHO’s Tedros says victims of Ethiopia air strike denied access to care

GENEVA (Reuters) -WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused authorities in Ethiopia on Friday of blocking ambulances from reaching scores of victims of an air strike this week, a rare case of speaking out in his official capacity about the conflict in his homeland.

Tedros, who is an ethnic Tigrayan and former Ethiopian Cabinet minister, referred in his opening remarks at a WHO briefing to the air strike this week which hit a crowded market in his native region. The federal government has been waging war against fighters loyal to the former regional authorities since last year.

“Ambulances were blocked for more than a day from attending the scene and evacuating the wounded for medical care,” Tedros said.

“WHO is currently providing life-saving trauma and surgical supplies to a hospital that is treating survivors who were able to reach care,” Tedros said. “Attacks on civilians anywhere are completely unacceptable and so is denying them access to immediate care, because we lose lives.”

Tedros has occasionally tweeted about the conflict in Tigray, but has rarely mentioned it while speaking publicly in his official capacity as head of the WHO.

Ethiopia’s government has accused him in the past of supporting its opponents in the Tigray conflict, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which he previously represented as Ethiopia’s health minister and foreign minister.

Ethiopia’s military has denied that any civilians were among those killed in the air strike on the town of Togoga near the regional capital Mekelle. A military spokesman said on Thursday that all those struck were combatants, wearing civilian clothes.

Residents and doctors, however, have said that women and children were among the dead and wounded. A health official working on the response to the air strike said on Friday the death toll had risen to 64 killed, with 180 other people wounded.

The incident was one of the deadliest in months in a conflict in which the government had said major fighting largely ended last year.

It happened after residents described an increase in fighting in recent days, and fell on the anniversary of a 1988 air strike by Ethiopia’s then-ruling communists that killed hundreds of civilians, an event widely commemorated in Tigray.

On Friday, Tedros also tweeted a message from medical charity Medecins sans Frontiers, which reported that three of its staff had been killed in Ethiopia.

(Reporting by Peter Graff, Michael Shields and Stephanie NebehayWriting by Peter Graff; editing by Grant McCool)

Israel to ease more Gaza restrictions as truce holds

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it would ease restrictions on trade and fisheries in the Gaza Strip that had been tightened during 11 days of fighting with the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers last month.

Israel keeps tight controls over Gaza’s borders, with support from neighboring Egypt, citing threats from Hamas. The Israeli restrictions were intensified during the May fighting – halting Gaza exports, restricting imports of raw materials and limiting the area that Palestinians are permitted to fish.

With an Egyptian-mediated truce largely holding, Israel on Monday allowed a limited resumption of commercial exports from Gaza. But Hamas demanded a wider easing of curbs and held out the possibility of resuming hostilities.

Starting from Friday, Israel will “expand the fishing zone in the Gaza Strip from six to nine nautical miles, and (approve) the import of raw materials for essential civilian factories,” COGAT, a branch of Israel’s defense ministry, said.

The new measures are “conditional upon the preservation of security stability,” COGAT said in a statement.

At least one factory in the Strip, Pepsi Gaza, had shut down due to Israeli restrictions on raw materials imports, including carbon dioxide gas. COGAT did not say which raw materials would be allowed in.

Egypt and the United Nations stepped up mediation last week after incendiary balloons launched from Gaza drew retaliatory Israeli air strikes on Hamas sites, challenging the fragile ceasefire.

At least 250 Palestinians and 13 in Israel were killed in the May fighting, which saw Gaza militants fire rockets towards Israeli cities and Israel carry out air strikes across the coastal enclave.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Medical official: air strike kills at least 43 in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Katharine Houreld

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town of Togoga in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters, after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of the regional capital Mekelle.

Ethiopian military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not confirm or deny the incident. He said air strikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.

The bomb hit a market at around 1 p.m., according to a woman who said her husband and 2-year-old daughter had been injured.

“We didn’t see the plane, but we heard it,” she told Reuters on Wednesday. “When the explosion happened, everyone ran out. After a time we came back and were trying to pick up the injured.”

The woman said the market had been full of families, and she did not see any armed forces in the area. “Many, many” people had been killed, she said.

Reuters could not independently verify her account. She and other sources asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

The medical official confirmed at least 43 fatalities, citing witnesses and first responders.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the head of a government task force on Tigray did not respond to requests for comment on the incident.

A senior United Nations official said on Wednesday that he was “disturbed by reports of bombing yesterday that killed and wounded civilians in a market in Togoga, Tigray.”

“All parties to the conflict must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

“I call on the Ethiopian authorities to carry out a prompt and effective investigation into this attack,” he added.

News of the airstrike came as Ethiopian officials counted ballots from national and regional parliamentary elections held this week in seven of the nation’s 10 regions.

No voting was held in Tigray, where the military has been battling forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, since November. Security concerns and problems with ballot papers also delayed voting in two other regions.

Residents reported that TPLF forces had entered several towns north of Mekelle in the past three days, withdrawing from one of them within hours.

AMBULANCES BLOCKED

The official and two other health workers helping with the response in Togoga told Reuters on Wednesday that Ethiopian soldiers were blocking the main road from Mekelle to the town and preventing ambulances from reaching the scene.

“Patients are dying right now,” said the official.

He said two ambulances had been able to reach the town via a back road late on Tuesday but did not have the necessary equipment and were not being allowed to leave.

He said the teams had counted at least 40 dead at the scene, three people had died overnight, and there were 44 critically wounded patients needing treatment.

Another medical worker said around 20 health workers in six ambulances had tried to reach the wounded on Tuesday but soldiers stopped them at a checkpoint.

“They told us we couldn’t go to Togoga. We stayed more than one hour at the checkpoint trying to negotiate. We had a letter from the health bureau – we showed them. But they said it was an order.”

Military spokesman Getnet denied that the military was blocking ambulances.

(Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Giulia ParaviciniEditing by Toby Chopra, Peter Graff, Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)

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)