Netanyahu faces snap election calls after defense minister quits

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker, Israel November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls on Thursday from his coalition partners to hold an early election, a day after the defense minister’s resignation left the government with a razor-thin majority.

Avigdor Lieberman quit on Wednesday over what he described as the government’s too-soft policy on cross-border violence with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The loss of the five seats of Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu faction leaves Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, raising the prospect that a scheduled November 2019 election would be brought forward.

Lieberman’s resignation takes effect 48 hours after being handed in, which he did early on Thursday. Each coalition partner will then have the power to bring down the government.

To avert a crisis, Netanyahu has been holding talks with ministers in an effort to stabilize the government.

Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, said he told Netanyahu in their meeting that the responsible step to take would be to establish a new and stable government.

“The best thing for Israel’s citizens and economy is to hold an election as soon as possible,” Kahlon said in a statement. His call was echoed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction.

Adding to the pressure, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, has demanded the defense brief by given to him.

Both Lieberman and Bennett, who compete with Netanyahu’s Likud for right-wing voters, have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

“I asked the prime minister yesterday to appoint me defense minister to fulfill one goal only – that Israel start winning again,” Bennett said at a conference near Tel Aviv.

Jewish Home said on Wednesday that without the defense brief, there would be no point in keeping the government together.

However Bennett did not repeat this in his remarks on Thursday nor did he render an explicit ultimatum to Netanyahu, with whom he is due to meet on Friday.

It was unclear whether Netanyahu would opt for an early election.

Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption, and speculation has been rife that he may bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before Israel’s attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

A poll published on Wednesday by Israel’s Hadashot television news showed Likud falling by one seat from 30 to 29 after months of surveys that have shown it gaining power. Only 17 percent of respondents were happy with Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after botched Israeli operation

Palestinians inspect the remains of a vehicle that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Monday after a botched Israeli undercover operation in the Gaza Strip led to fighting that killed a Hamas commander, six other Palestinian militants and an Israeli colonel.

Palestinians fired 17 rockets into southern Israel late on Sunday in response to the incursion and air strikes, which Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, said were intended to cover the retreat of a car used by the Israeli troops.

There were no reports of injuries or damage in Israel, but the military said a lieutenant-colonel, identified only as “M”, had been killed in the raid and another officer wounded.

Hamas said the Israeli actions dealt a blow to Egyptian, Qatari, and U.N. efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the Palestinian group and Israel and ease an Israeli blockade that has deepened economic hardship in Gaza.

But neither side appeared eager to pursue broader conflict.

Hamas received $15 million in Qatari-donated cash via Israel on Friday to pay for civil servants’ salaries and fuel to address Gaza’s energy crisis.

No new rocket launches were reported on Monday morning.

Violence has flared regularly along the Israel-Gaza border since Palestinians began protests there on March 30 to demand rights to land lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its creation.

Israeli gunfire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the start of the demonstrations, which have included breaches of Israel’s border fence.

Hamas said that during Sunday’s fighting, assailants in a passing vehicle opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing one of its local commanders, Nour Baraka.

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Sal

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A pursuit ensued and witnesses said Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles into the area. Palestinian officials said that in addition to Baraka, five other Hamas men and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, Israel’s chief military spokesman said the special forces had not been dispatched to assassinate Hamas commanders, a tactic that led to wider conflict in the past and which has largely been abandoned.

The spokesman, Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, told Army Radio that covert missions were mounted frequently, comments that suggested the Israeli force may have been gathering intelligence.

“During the operation, it found itself in a very complex situation, faced by enemy forces. The (Israeli) force, including Lieutenant-Colonel M., kept its cool, returned fire and evacuated itself together with the (help of the) air force back into Israel,” Manelis said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris, where he attended World War One commemorations with other world leaders. He returned home early on Monday.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel steps up armored deployment on Gaza border

Israeli soldiers speak next to tanks as military armoured vehicles gather in an open area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

YAD MORDECHAI, Israel (Reuters) – Israel ramped up its armored forces along the Gaza border on Thursday in a daylight show of force, a day after a Palestinian rocket destroyed a home in southern Israel.

With the deployment clearly visible from main Israeli roads near the Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials met leaders of the enclave’s ruling Hamas to try to calm tensions.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group quickly denied firing the rockets.

Much may depend on the scope and intensity of a planned Palestinian protest at the border with Israel on Friday, where often violent demonstrations have been held over the past six months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet on Wednesday after the rocket wrecked a home in the city of Beersheba, pledged to take “very strong action” if Palestinian attacks continued.

Israeli leaders have said they will not tolerate rocket attacks or attempts, during the border protests, to breach Israel’s frontier fence with the Palestinian territory of two million people.

A Reuters photographer counted some 60 tanks and armored personnel carriers at a deployment area near the border, calling it the largest number he has seen there since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.

In Gaza, a Palestinian official said the Egyptian delegation was also in contact with Israeli leaders to curb the current tensions.

“The situation is delicate. No one wants a war,” he said.

“Palestinian factions are demanding an end to the Israeli blockade that strangled life and business in Gaza,” the official told Reuters.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Reporting by Amir Cohen, and Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ori Lewis and Richard Balmforth)

Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli city draws Gaza air strikes

Israeli sappers work on a house that the Israeli military said was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Beersheba, southern Israel October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the largest city in southern Israel early on Wednesday, prompting Israeli air strikes that killed a militant in the Palestinian enclave.

Egypt, which sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday’s surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

The rocket hit a two-story house in Beersheba before dawn, the Israeli military said. It gutted most of the home, blowing out concrete walls and its stone facade, showering its yard and an adjacent street with rubble.

The family living there managed to take shelter in a reinforced room after alert sirens sounded, said officials in the city about 40 km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

Another rocket launched from Gaza and aimed at central Israel fell into the Mediterranean Sea, the military said.

After the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with his defense minister and top generals at military headquarters near the Gaza border, which has seen more than six months of sometimes violent Palestinian protests.

Netanyahu said that in a statement that unless attacks from Gaza ceased, “Israel will act with great force” to stop them.

With a nod to the Egyptian talks, Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and other major militant groups took the unusual step of denying responsibility for Wednesday’s launchings, saying they rejected “all irresponsible attempts to sabotage the Egyptian effort, including the firing of the rockets”.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any of the other smaller groups that operate in Gaza, and by mid-afternoon the area was quiet.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio there was evidence to back up the Hamas statement. But he said Israeli policy dictated an “immediate and forceful retaliation” against Hamas because the groups controls Gaza.

The European Union, in a statement from Brussels, said indiscriminate attacks against civilians were completely unacceptable and mortar and rocket fire by Palestinian militants must stop immediately.

EXPLOSIONS

Israel’s military said it struck armed training camps in Gaza and also targeted a squad about to launch a rocket.

Health officials in Gaza said a 25-year-old Palestinian man, identified by Al-Mujahedeen Brigades, a small militant faction, as one of its members, was killed. Five other Palestinians were wounded in separate attacks.

Many people in Gaza awoke to the sounds of explosions. Families crowded into a nearby hospital where the dead man’s mother collapsed over his body.

Pillars of smoke rose from the sites bombed by Israel, including a port Hamas is constructing in the southern Gaza Strip and a naval police position.

Cairo has been holding talks with Hamas on a truce with Israel and ways to end 11 years of division with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in the occupied West Bank. A Palestinian source said Egyptian officials in Gaza have been in touch with Israel to try to avoid further escalation.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in JerusalemWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Israel reinforces troops outside Gaza as border protests enter seventh month

FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian protester covers his head with a model of the Dome of the Rock during clashes with Israeli troops near the border between Israel and Central Gaza Strip August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said it was reinforcing troops around the Gaza Strip on Thursday as a precaution against incursions by Palestinians during violent protests along the border that have often been met by lethal Israeli fire.

The language of the Israeli military statement did not appear to herald any imminent offensive in Gaza but seemed to suggest stronger action at the frontier to foil any further Palestinian attempts to breach Israel’s security fence during the demonstrations, which began in March.

Israel accuses Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamist group of inciting violence at the border, an allegation it denies. Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, during which time it has fought three wars with Israel, most recently in 2014.

Since the protests began in March at least 193 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, Gaza medics say. One Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian sniper.

The protesters demand the easing of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory and rights to lands Palestinian families fled or were driven from on Israel’s founding in 1948.

The Israeli military said it “decided on wide-scale reinforcements in the southern command in the coming days and the continuation of a determined policy to thwart terror activity and prevent infiltrations into Israel from the Gaza Strip”.

Commenting on the deployment, Tzachi Hanegbi, a non-voting member of Israel’s security cabinet, told Israel Radio: “Our wish is to prevent escalation. I hope that the other side has a similar desire.”

In an interview published on Thursday in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily and Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, Hamas’s Gaza-based leader Yehya Al-Sinwar was quoted as saying that “a new war was not in anyone’s interest” but “an explosion was unavoidable” unless Gaza’s “siege” was lifted.

Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods along their borders with Gaza, a policy that the World Bank says has brought the enclave of 2 million people to economic collapse.

Hanegbi said Hamas, which is engaged with Egypt in efforts to achieve a long-term ceasefire with Israel, had “gone back to its old ways” in recent weeks by encouraging “bombs, shooting and attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on the fence”.

“Therefore a mobilization of troops is really required,” he said.

(This story corrects border reference in paragraph 9)

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

Gaza ceasefire ends flare-up, Palestinians resume protests

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

GAZA (Reuters) – An Egyptian-brokered truce ended a two-day wave of rocket barrages and air strikes between Israel and Gaza, but the border remained tense as thousands of Gazans gathered for protests in which two Palestinians were killed and scores wounded.

After a quiet night with no rockets falling in Israel or air strikes in Gaza, residents in southern Israel, who had spent much of the past two days in rocket shelters, were told by the military they could return to their daily routines.

In Gaza, crowds of Palestinians resumed protests against Israel. Reuters TV footage showed plumes of smoke blackening the sky at one area of the border after Palestinians set tires ablaze, and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded about 240 others, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israeli military said rioters hurled stones, explosives, and firebombs at troops and the border fence. The soldiers “responded with riot dispersal means and live fire, in accordance with the standard operating procedures”, a spokeswoman said.

A tank also fired at a Hamas outpost, the military said.

Since the weekly protests began on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 159 Palestinians and a Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Still, the broader truce held on Friday after a two-day escalation during which the Hamas militant group fired scores of rockets, including a long-range missile deep into Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza.

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child were killed in the Israeli attacks, as was a Hamas militant. Seven people were wounded by Palestinian rockets and mortars that struck Israel.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a blockade on Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is home to two million Palestinians, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

A senior Egyptian official said Cairo was working to secure a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Hamas, beginning with a ceasefire and later including economic improvements.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch and Cairo newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

Most foreign envoys absent as Israel, U.S. launch embassy festivities

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claps after handing U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a letter of appreciation, during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel launched celebrations on Sunday for the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, a move whose break with world consensus was underscored by the absence of most envoys to the country from a reception hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Monday’s slated opening of the new embassy follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision he said fulfilled decades of policy pledges in Washington and formalized realities on the ground.

The Palestinians, who want their own future state with its capital in east Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

Those talks have been frozen since 2014. Other major powers worry that the U.S. move could inflame Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and on the Gaza Strip border, where Israel reinforced troops in anticipation of the embassy opening.

Most countries say Jerusalem’s status should be determined in a final peace settlement, and say moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Addressing dignitaries at the Foreign Ministry, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the Israeli prime minister urged others to follow Washington’s lead.

“Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it’s the right thing to do,” Netanyahu said. “Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it advances peace, and that’s because you can’t base peace on a foundation of lies.”

Netanyahu said that “under any peace agreement you could possibly imagine, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital”.

Jerusalem, which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, was decorated with roadside flowerbeds in the design of the U.S. flag and posters reading “Trump make Israel great again”.

“Tragically, the U.S. administration has chosen to side with Israel’s exclusivist claims over a city that has for centuries been sacred to all faiths,” the general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the United States said.

The U.S. Embassy move “gives life to a religious conflict instead of a dignified peace,” it said in a statement.

Israel said all 86 countries with diplomatic missions in Israel were invited to the event, and 33 confirmed attendance. Among those present were delegates from Guatemala and Paraguay, which will open their own Jerusalem embassies later this month.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

EUROPEAN RIFT

Attending the Foreign Ministry gathering were representatives from Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, but none from western European Union states – suggesting a rift within the bloc over Trump’s Jerusalem move.

No-show nations withheld comment on Sunday.

The EU mission in Israel tweeted on Friday that the bloc would “respect the international consensus on Jerusalem … including on the location of their diplomatic representations until the final status of Jerusalem is resolved”.

Outside Jerusalem’s ancient Damascus Gate, Israelis danced in another celebration on Sunday, marking the capture of the Old City from Arab forces in the 1967 Middle East War.

Hundreds of Israeli rightists entered Al Aqsa mosque compound, an icon of Palestinian nationalism and a vestige of ancient Jewish temples. Witnesses said some prostrated themselves in Jewish prayer, violating religious restrictions at the site and sparking scuffles with Muslim worshippers.

Israeli police said several people were forcibly removed and questioned.

The U.S. Treasury secretary called the embassy relocation “a sign of the enduring friendship and partnership between our two countries” and also referred to the U.S. withdrawal last week from the Iran nuclear deal, a move welcomed by Israel and some U.S. Arab allies in the Gulf but lamented by other world powers.

The Palestinians plan to demonstrate against Monday’s inauguration from Arab districts abutting the Jerusalem site.

On the border with Gaza, Palestinians have also held protests as Israel prepares to mark 70 years since its creation, an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from their homes.

More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in the latest violence.

In a recorded speech released on Sunday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri criticized Trump’s decision on the embassy, as well as the leaders of Muslim countries he said had sold out the Palestinians. He also said Israel’s Tel Aviv was Muslim land.

The Trump administration has sought to keep the door open to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy by saying the embassy move did not aim to prejudge Jerusalem’s final borders. The U.S. consulate in the city, tasked with handling Palestinian ties, will remain.

Washington has not asked Israel to initiate peace moves in exchange for the embassy relocation, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman told reporters on Friday: “There was no give and take with Israel with regard to this decision.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Warren Strobel in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair and Daniel Wallis)

Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)