Muslims must stop other countries opening Jerusalem embassies: Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary General of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen are seen during a meeting of the OIC Foreign Ministers Council in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018. Hudaverdi Arif Yaman/Pool via Reuters

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Parisa Hafezi

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey called on Muslim countries on Friday to stop other nations from following the United States and moving their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, as it opened a meeting in Istanbul on Friday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after Israeli forces this week killed dozens of Palestinian protesters who were demonstrating in Gaza against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Turkey has been one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. move and the violence in Gaza, declaring three days of mourning. Erdogan has described the actions of the Israeli forces as a “genocide” and Israel as a “terrorist state”.

“We will emphasise the status of the Palestine issue for our community, and that we will not allow the status of the historic city to be changed,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an opening address. “We must prevent other countries following the U.S. example.”

The events in Gaza have also sparked a diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel, with both countries expelling each other’s senior diplomats this week.

The plight of Palestinians resonates with many Turks, particularly the nationalist and religious voters who form the base of support for Erdogan, running for re-election next month.

TRADE TIES

Despite the rhetoric, Israel was the 10th-biggest market for Turkish exports in 2017, buying some $3.4 billion of goods, according to IMF statistics.

“We have excellent economic ties with Turkey. And these relations are very important for both sides,” Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told Israel Radio on Friday when asked if Israel should break ties with Turkey.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy reversed decades of U.S. policy, upsetting the Arab world and Western allies.

Guatemala this week became the second country to move its embassy to the holy city, and Paraguay said it would follow suit this month.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian television after arriving in Istanbul that “Israel’s recent crimes in Palestine and the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem need serious coordination between Islamic countries and the international community”.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Friday said Israel had systematically deprived Palestinians of their human rights, with 1.9 million people in Gaza “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Israel says new Gaza tunnel foiled, lifts veil on detection lab

FILE PHOTO: Construction work can be seen on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israel March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it destroyed a guerrilla tunnel from the Gaza Strip and gave rare details on a classified military laboratory spearheading efforts to foil the cross-border digs.

Palestinian gunmen used tunnels to blindside Israeli forces during the 2014 Gaza war. Israel has since been developing detection technologies and laying down an underground frontier wall which, it says, will end the Gaza tunnel threat by 2019.

It is the fifth such detection in as many months and Israeli officials regard publicity around their tunnel hunts as a double-edged sword.

They hope it will discourage new digs but worry it could prompt militants to preempt the razing of any existing passages by using them for attacks.

The most recent discovery was of a passage running “kilometres” from within Gaza to just over the border, Israel’s military said on Sunday, accusing the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists of being behind the project. Hamas did not comment.

“We were able to detect, and we destroyed it, using similar means that we have used in the past,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

“There was no use of explosives, but rather, we filled the tunnel, which rendered it useless for a very long period of time.”

Conricus did not elaborate on the means of detection nor how the tunnel was filled. Such details are secret in Israel, which has received U.S. congressional funding for the project.

Later on Sunday, Israel went public with a military laboratory it set up in 2016 to pool anti-tunnel expertise.

The laboratory “uses innovative ground research, which includes scanning of cavities and their dynamics, (and) strives to develop new discovery and mapping techniques”, a military statement said.

A video release showed soldiers, with faces obscured, poring over maps and computer screens at an undisclosed location.

Israel offered no explanation for its publication about the laboratory, which followed a surge in Gaza border protests that organisers want to peak in mid-May – the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, which Palestinians mourn as a catastrophe.

Israeli army snipers have killed 31 Palestinians during the demonstrations, drawing international censure. The military says it is taking necessary action against people suspected of trying to damage the border fence or provide cover for Hamas attacks.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has denied having any such plans.

The tunnel whose discovery was made public on Sunday crossed the border with Israel near the site of intensive Palestinian disturbances, Conricus said. “I wouldn’t think that it’s a coincidence,” he added, without elaborating.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said geophysicists from his ministry were involved in the anti-tunnel efforts, as well as researchers from the Technion, an Israeli university, and from state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Thousands of Palestinians protest at Gaza-Israel border, one dead

A girl hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – A Palestinian was killed and more than 200 others wounded during clashes with Israeli troops as thousands gathered in protest along the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, Gaza officials said.

Palestinians hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, where Israeli army sharpshooters are deployed. Some in the crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device and tried cross into Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian medical officials said Israeli troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding 220.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and responded “with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Palestinians had arrived en masse at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 31 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

The Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached during the recent clashes, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli forces wound 30 more Palestinians in Gaza-Israel border protests

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an axe during clashes with Israeli troops, during a tent city protest along the Israel border with Gaza, demanding the right to return to their homeland, the southern Gaza Strip March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded 30 Palestinians during a large protest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday in which demonstrators hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, Palestinian medics said.

Some in the Gaza crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device, according to the Israeli military.

Thousands of Palestinians arrived at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 30 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and “responding with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence, and deployed army sharpshooters along it.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

In recent days the Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israeli forces kill 15 Palestinians in Gaza border protests: Gaza medics

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an axe during clashes with Israeli troops, during a tent city protest along the Israel border with Gaza, demanding the right to return to their homeland, the southern Gaza Strip March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – At least 15 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured by Israeli security forces confronting one of the largest Palestinian demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border in recent years, Gaza medical officials said.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians, pressing for a right of return for refugees to what is now Israel, gathered at five locations along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier where tents were erected for a planned six-week protest, local officials said. The Israeli military estimate was 30,000.

Families brought their children to the encampments just a few hundred meters (yards) from the Israeli security barrier with the Hamas Islamist-run enclave, and football fields were marked in the sand and scout bands played.

But as the day wore on, hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier, where Israeli soldiers across the border kept watch from dirt mound embankments.

The military said its troops had used “riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Some of the demonstrators were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones” at the border fence and at soldiers.

Two Palestinians were killed by tank fire, the Gaza Health Ministry said. The Israeli military said the two were militants who had opened fire at troops across the border.

Palestinian health officials said Israeli forces used mostly gunfire against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had deployed a drone over at least one location to drop tear gas.

Live fire was used only against people trying to sabotage the border security fence and at least two of the dead were Hamas operatives, an Israeli military official said.

Gaza health officials said one of the dead was aged 16 and at least 400 people were wounded by live gunfire, while others were struck by rubber bullets or treated for tear gas inhalation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that Israel was responsible for the violence and declared Saturday a national day of mourning.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet later on Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza, diplomats said.

Israeli military vehicles are seen next to the border on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians demonstrate on the Gaza side of the border, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli military vehicles are seen next to the border on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians demonstrate on the Gaza side of the border, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

RIGHT OF RETURN

The protest presented a rare show of unity among rival Palestinian factions in the impoverished Gaza Strip, where pressure has been building on Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement to end a decade-old rift. Reconciliation efforts to end the feud have been faltering for months.

The demonstration was launched on “Land Day,” an annual commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.

But its main focus was a demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

In a statement, the Israeli military accused Hamas of “cynically exploiting women and children, sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives”.

The military said that more than 100 army sharpshooters had been deployed in the area.

Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, had earlier urged protesters to adhere to the “peaceful nature” of the protest.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It argues that refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end collapsed in 2014.

There were also small protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and about 65 Palestinians were injured.

In Gaza, the protest was dubbed “The March of Return” and some of the tents bore names of the refugees’ original villages in what is now Israel, written in Arabic and Hebrew alike.

Citing security concerns, Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, blockades the coastal territory, maintaining tight restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and goods across the frontier. Egypt, battling an Islamist insurgency in neighboring Sinai, keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)

Suspect in Palestinian assassination attempt among four dead in Gaza shootout: Hamas

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas take up positions during an operation to arrest the main suspect in an assassination attempt against Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, in the central Gaza Strip March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Hamas said its security forces in Gaza shot dead on Thursday the main suspect behind an attempt to assassinate the Palestinian prime minister, a bombing that threatens to unravel its reconciliation agreement with the West Bank-based government.

Two members of the Hamas security forces and one accomplice of the suspect also died in the shootout, the Hamas-led Gaza interior ministry said.

The bombing of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy in Gaza last week dealt another blow to efforts to implement a unity deal between the two main Palestinian factions – Islamist Hamas, which dominates Gaza, and Fatah, the main party in the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The motorcade Hamdallah and Palestinian security chief Majid Faraj was attacked on March 13 shortly after it entered Gaza from neighboring Israel. They were uninjured.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had blamed Hamas for the explosion.

After Thursday’s raid, a spokesman for Hamdallah’s government questioned Hamas’s version of events and again accused the group of bearing “full criminal responsibility” for the assassination attempt.

“Once more, Hamas is going along the same path of … fabricating weak stories that make no sense,” the spokesman, Youssef Al-Mahmoud, said.

More than a decade after Hamas fighters drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza, Egypt has been brokering a reconciliation deal under which the PA would again assume administrative and security control in the territory of two million people.

Hamdallah has been spearheading those efforts on behalf of the PA, with both sides still divided over how to share power in Gaza, where Hamas is still the strongest armed force.

Abbas has argued that the assassination attempt proved that the agreement was failing and that Hamas could not be trusted.

In a statement, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza said its security forces investigating the assassination attempt had surrounded a hideout in the central region of the enclave and came under fire after demanding the suspects surrender.

It said a man named Anas Abu Khoussa, whom it identified as the prime suspect in the bombing, was killed in the ensuing shootout, along with an accomplice and two Hamas security men.

The ministry did not say whether Abu Khoussa was affiliated with any militant group.

Abbas has offered no evidence of the involvement of Hamas in the attempt against Hamdallah’s life. But he said he did not trust Hamas to investigate the incident honestly and that there had been “zero” progress in the reconciliation.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Fatah in 2007.

The Palestinian reconciliation effort is opposed by Israel, which considers Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction, an implacable foe. U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014, in part over a unity deal that year between the PA and Hamas, as well as other issues.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ori Lewis and Peter Graff)

Israel says it destroyed Gaza attack tunnel under Egyptian border

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard near the border between Egypt and Gaza, in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it had destroyed a cross-border attack tunnel that ran from Gaza into Israel and Egypt dug by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave, and that it would destroy all attack tunnels by the year’s end.

Residents in Gaza said Israeli jets bombed an area east of the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian and Israeli borders, late on Saturday night. Israel confirmed the attack immediately after, but gave no details until Sunday.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas or Egypt, or any reports of casualties.

Israel says it has developed new means which it has declined to disclose, to find tunnels. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lauded the breakthrough in an interview on commercial television news, saying they would all be destroyed by the end of the year.

“By the end of 2018, we will eliminate all the Hamas attack tunnels … we may even manage to do this sooner, but the task is to destroy them all by the end of the year,” Lieberman said.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gaza militants have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortar bombs, causing no fatalities or serious injuries in Israel, and 15 protesters and two gunmen have been killed by Israeli fire.

The attacks from Gaza, which Israel has blamed on groups not affiliated with Hamas, have drawn Israeli air strikes, usually on targets that have been evacuated.

“There are those who say the Israeli military attacks sand dunes – that is incorrect,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing criticism from lawmakers who have called for a stronger armed response, told reporters after the tunnel was targeted.

Netanyahu cautioned Hamas that Israel “will respond with even greater force” if rocket strikes continue. Israel has said Hamas, as the dominant force in Gaza, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the enclave.

But Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Army Radio that Israel is “not looking for confrontation with Hamas”. Nonetheless, he said Israel “could not abide by a situation in which Israelis are harmed by fire (from Gaza)”.

Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, described the target hit on Saturday as 1.5 km (one mile)-lone “terror tunnel” running the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel, and into Egypt.

“It could also have served to transfer terrorists from the Gaza Strip into Egypt in order to attack Israeli targets from Egypt,” he said.

Kerem Shalom, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, was shut down on Saturday before the Israeli attack.

Underground tunnels are used to smuggle in all manner of commercial goods to Gaza, and to bring in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups. They have also been used by Hamas to launch attacks inside Israel.

During the last Gaza war, in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces.

The Israeli military said it has destroyed three tunnels in the past two months.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and David Evans)

Flare-up with Israel tests Hamas effort to keep Gaza on low boil

Schoolgirls stand next to bus stop bomb shelters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip January 8, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lee Marzel

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – The worst fighting on the Gaza Strip front since 2014 is being calibrated by Hamas, which wants to signal defiance of Israel and the United States while being careful not to trigger a new war for the enclave’s penned-in Palestinians.

Since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians in Gaza have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortars – a third of all such attacks in 3-1/2 years of relative quiet.

For Israel’s part, though residents in the south have raised a clamour for harsh retaliation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has counselled caution and targeted mostly unmanned Hamas facilities in night-time airstrikes.

The careful moves reflect the balancing act maintained both by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, and the Israeli government, old foes who share a reluctance to go to war again.

Gaza’s neighbourhoods still bear the scars of the destruction caused by Israeli attacks during a seven-week conflict in 2014. In Israel, there is little eagerness to endure the daily sirens warning of rocket strikes.

But ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are keenly aware that even a single incident – a rocket causing multiple fatalities in Israel or Israeli forces killing a militant leader – could set off a conflagration that would be beyond their leaders’ control.

Two Hamas gunmen have died in retaliatory Israeli air strikes and 15 protesters from Israeli gunfire.

“The recent weeks of rockets and Israeli bombardment proved an explosion is possible,” said Gaza political analyst Akram Attalla. “How long will Hamas continue to take Israeli strikes to its positions without a response? And how long will Israel’s Netanyahu tolerate internal criticism? There is no guarantee.”

While there have been no Israeli fatalities or serious injuries in the rocket strikes, farmers in communities close to the Gazan border think twice about tilling fields where they might be exposed and children practice duck-and-cover drills should air raid sirens sound.

“Lately we do feel that there is more presence of the army. We have been told to be more careful, to clear the bomb shelter just in case. You never know when the next rocket will come,” said Hila Fenlon, resident of the farm collective Nativ Haasara.

Hamas has responded to Trump’s move by mobilising mass protests at the border and turning a blind eye to other factions firing into Israel in two weeks of daily attacks, which have tailed off recently.

“This saves face for Hamas, as it appears to be the one that stands behind these protests without the need to go to war,” said Attalla.

A more violent response was tamped down in debate among Palestinian factions who agreed that an armed confrontation could erode the international support Palestinians have won diplomatically and shift attention from the political process.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said no-one should underestimate the potential for hostilities to resume under what he called an Israeli occupation, however.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the territory in 2005 but remains the conduit for the passage of goods and supplies most of its electricity. Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain tight restrictions on the passage of Palestinians through their borders with the enclave.

“The situation in Gaza is very difficult and is not tolerable and is doomed to explode,” he told Reuters.

IRANIAN SUPPORT

Israel sees an outside catalyst for the violence – Iran, which both Hamas and its sometime ally Islamic Jihad say has pledged unlimited assistance for them as the Syrian civil war, where Tehran deployed reinforcements for Damascus, winds down.

Israel has gone out its way to blame Islamic Jihad and other groups for the rocket and mortar attacks, rather than Hamas, and even gave grudging credit to Hamas for being mindful of Palestinian civilian needs.

“Calls to respond with full force against Hamas are irresponsible,” the top Israeli general, Gadi Eizenkot, said in a speech last week. He noted Gaza’s “danger of humanitarian collapse”, which, he said, had forced Hamas to engage with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and secured a renewed power supply to the enclave.

Israel also has problems elsewhere.

Having neutralised much of the rocket threat from Gaza with their Iron Dome interceptor system, and hard at a work on an underground wall that would block guerrilla tunnels from the territory, Israeli defence officials say they worry more about Iran and the combustible northern front with Syria and Lebanon.

They also fear that the $1.1 billion sensor-equipped barrier on the 60-km (37-mile) frontier could tempt Gaza militants to use their tunnels to strike Israel before they lose them.

A range of economic initiatives have been broached, from the construction of an island off Gaza to handle direct imports by sea to the issuing of more permits for Palestinian labourers or agricultural exports to enter Israel.

“There is an effort to help the (Palestinian) population in a way that will not go to the armed wing of Hamas,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, which has prepared a 180-page memorandum on the Gaza crisis.

Israeli concern about worsening Gaza’s internal problems has put it at odds even with the Trump administration, which has threatened to cut U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that provides essential aid for Palestinian refugees in the enclave, supporting and administering hundreds of schools and dozens of health facilities.

Israel says funds should be cut gradually and UNRWA should ultimately be dismantled and its responsibilities transferred to the United Nations’ global refugee agency.

Cutting aid to UNRWA would spell “huge pressures on Gaza’s residents,” said Saleh Naami, another Palestinian political analyst.

Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesman, agreed.

“While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defence establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all alternatives are worse for Israel,” he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)

Thousands of Palestinians take part in anti-Trump protests

A demonstrator holds a sign and a Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 29, 2017.

GAZA (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza and the occupied West Bank for the fourth Friday in a row in protests against U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestinian health officials said at least 20 protesters were wounded by live fire, mostly along the Gaza border. An Israeli military spokeswoman said soldiers had shot at “main instigators” who posed a direct threat to the troops and who were trying to damage the border security fence.

The spokeswoman said about 4,000 Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza, some throwing rocks and fire bombs and setting tires alight, confronted Israeli soldiers who responded mainly by firing tear gas.

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 29, 2017.

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

In Gaza, demonstrators chanted “Death to America, death to Israel, and death to Trump” and militants fired rockets into Israel, drawing strikes by Israeli tanks and aircraft.

The military said it targeted posts that belonged to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave, after intercepting two of the three rockets fired into Israel. Police said the third struck a building, causing damage. No casualties were reported in those incidents.

Trump outraged Palestinians and sparked anger in the Middle East and among world powers with his Jerusalem declaration on Dec. 6, which reversed decades of U.S. policy on one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

A masked Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city

A masked Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Most countries regard the status of Jerusalem as a matter to be settled in an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, although that process is now stalled.

A U.N. General Assembly resolution passed on Dec. 21 rejected Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. A total of 128 countries voted for the U.N. resolution. Nine opposed it and 35 abstained. Twenty-one countries did not cast a vote.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Catherine Evans)