Israel strikes Hamas in Gaza, calling attack response to rocket fire

A Palestinian fisherman walks on a beach in the southern Gaza Strip June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft attacked a Hamas target in Gaza on Thursday after a Palestinian rocket strike, the Israeli military said, in the first serious cross-border flare-up since a surge in fighting last month.

The latest hostilities followed Israel’s closure of offshore waters to Gaza fisherman on Wednesday in what it said was a response to incendiary balloons launched across the frontier that caused fires in fields in southern Israel this week.

In a statement, the military said fighter planes attacked “underground infrastructure” in a compound belonging to the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. There were no reports of injuries.

The military said it was responding to a rocket fired from Gaza overnight that was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In two days of heavy fighting in early May, projectiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel, local health officials said, and Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, according to Gaza health authorities.

A truce mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations ended that round of violence.

Some two million Palestinians live in Gaza, whose economy has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Netanyahu hours away from deadline for forming coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had until late Wednesday to form a new ruling coalition with a recalcitrant ally or face the possible end of a decade of combative leadership of Israel.

As the hours ticked by, there was no sign of a breakthrough in talks with far-right former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Parliament began a full-day debate on a motion to dissolve itself and call a new election if no deal is struck.

Political sources said Netanyahu was seeking agreement with the leaders of parties in the legislature for a mid-September election day.

Netanyahu had declared himself the winner of a national ballot last month, but he now has until midnight (2100 GMT) to tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he has put together an administration, and his political future hangs in the balance.

Failure to forge a coalition would take the task out of the 69-year-old Netanyahu’s hands, with Rivlin asking another legislator, either from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party or from the opposition, to try.

That presidential move, which would sideline Netanyahu, can be avoided with a coalition agreement deal or if parliament approves an election.

Political commentator Chemi Shalev, writing in the left-wing Haaretz daily, said a last-minute agreement was still possible and Netanyahu would still be the favorite to win a new poll.

But he said Netanyahu’s critics now find themselves fantasizing about a world without him.

“It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Young Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known,” Shalev wrote.

Lieberman has stuck to his guns in a battle with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of Netanyahu’s current interim government, to limit traditional military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Without the support of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu cannot put together a majority government of right-wing and religious factions led by Likud.

Political commentators said that as the prospects dimmed for a compromise with Lieberman, Netanyahu would focus his efforts on enlisting the 61 votes needed in parliament to approve a new election.

The brinkmanship six weeks after the closely contested April ballot poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule and deepens political uncertainty in a country riven with division.

PEACE PLAN

A new election could also complicate U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even before it has been announced Palestinians have rejected it as a blow to their aspirations for statehood.

The White House team behind the proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for an economic “workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The group is due in Israel on Thursday.

Lieberman said on Wednesday he was not backing down in what he termed a matter of principle over the conscription issue, and he denied Likud allegations his real intention was to oust Netanyahu and lead a “national camp”.

“I am not a vengeful man and I don’t hold a grudge,” said Lieberman, who last year resigned as defense chief in a dispute with Netanyahu over policy toward Gaza.

Despite looming indictments in three corruption cases,

Netanyahu had appeared to be on course for a fifth term as head of a right-wing bloc after he squeezed past centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Public attention had been focused less on coalition-building and more on moves Netanyahu loyalists were planning in parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and is due to argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against the attorney-general’s intention, announced in February, to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to encourage investment in Palestinian areas as first part of peace plan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel back to Washington, DC at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York, U.S., May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will unveil the first part of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan when it holds an international conference in Bahrain in late June to encourage investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, senior U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The “economic workshop” will bring together government officials and business leaders in an effort to jump-start the economic portion of the peace initiative, which is also expected to include proposals for resolving thorny political issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the officials said.

Trump has touted the coming plan as the “deal of the century,” but Palestinian officials have rebuked the U.S. effort, which they believe will be heavily biased in favor of Israel.

Trump’s Middle East team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and regional envoy Jason Greenblatt, appears intent on focusing initially on potential economic benefits, despite deep skepticism among experts that they can succeed where decades of U.S.-backed efforts have failed.

“We think this is an opportunity to take the economic plan that we’ve worked on for a long time now and present it in the region,” a senior Trump administration official said.

The participants in the June 25-26 conference in Manama, the first phase of the peace plan’s rollout, are expected to include representatives and business executives from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including some finance ministers, the administration official said.

A second U.S. official declined to say whether Israeli and Palestinian officials were likely to take part.

“Our position is clear: we will neither participate in the economic segment nor in the political segment of this deal,” said PLO senior official Wasel Abu Youssef.

The Palestinian Authority has boycotted the U.S. peace effort since late 2017 when Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of U.S. policy.

But the senior U.S. official said several Palestinian business leaders “have shown a lot of interest” in the conference.

A spokesman for Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said: “We have not yet received an invitation.”

INVESTMENT IN GAZA?

U.S. officials had said earlier the peace plan would be rolled out after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in early June. But the announcement of the investors’ workshop appears to set the stage for a sequenced release of the plan, starting with the economic plan, and later, at some time not yet clear, the political proposals.

The senior U.S. official said the conference would show the people of Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, that “there are donor countries around the world willing to come in and make investments.”

The Trump administration has sought to enlist support from Arab governments. The plan is likely to call for billions of dollars in financial backing for the Palestinians, mostly from oil-rich Gulf states, according to people informed about the discussions.

Saudi Arabia has assured Arab allies it would not endorse any U.S. plan that fails to meet key Palestinian concerns.

Though the plan’s authors insist the exact contents are known only to a handful of insiders, Trump’s aides have disclosed it will address the major political issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

They have said they expect Israelis and Palestinians will both be critical of some of the proposals.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a recent meeting at the United Nations attended by Greenblatt that the United States seemed to be crafting a plan for a Palestinian surrender to Israel and insisted “there’s no amount of money that can make it acceptable.”

Chief among the Palestinians’ concerns is whether the plan will meet their core demand of calling for them to have an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territory Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Kushner has declined to say whether the plan includes a two-state solution, a central goal of other recent peace efforts that is widely endorsed internationally.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Nearly 50 Palestinians wounded in ‘Catastrophe’ anniversary protests on Gaza-Israel border

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the 'Nakba', or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes in the war surrounding Israel's independence in 1948, near the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops wounded nearly 50 Palestinians at the Gaza border on Wednesday during protests to mark the 71st anniversary of the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, when many Palestinians lost their homes in the fighting around Israel’s creation, Gaza officials said.

Thousands had gathered at the coastal enclave’s frontier with Israel, the scene of bloodshed over the past year that has raised international concern.

Groups approached the border fence, planting Palestinian flags and throwing stones toward Israeli soldiers on the other side despite the efforts of marshalls in orange vests to keep protesters away from the barrier, witnesses said.

Israeli troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets to repel them, but also live ammunition, the witnesses said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 47 people were wounded, though it was not clear how many of those were hit by live ammunition or were hurt by rubber bullets or by inhaling tear gas.

The Israeli military said about 10,000 rioters and demonstrators gathered in several places along the Gaza Strip fence.

“The rioters are setting tyres on fire and hurling rocks. A number of explosive devices have been hurled within the Gaza Strip, as well, and a number of attempts have been made to approach the security fence. IDF troops are responding with riot dispersal means.”

Wednesday’s rallies were called to mark Nakba Day, what Palestinians term the catastrophe that befell them at Israel’s creation in 1948, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from lands in what is now Israel.

“Our people rise today to announce their rejection to this crime and to assert their right in Palestine, all of Palestine,” Islamic Jihad leader Khader Habib said at one demonstration, referring to Israel and the territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Palestine is ours, the sea is ours, the sky is ours and the land is ours, and those strangers must be removed,” he said.

Another protester, Jamila Mahmoud, 50, said her family had originally come from Asqlan, now the Israeli city of Ashkelon, near Gaza.

“If we don’t return, maybe our children and grandchildren will do, one day we will get our rights back,” Mahmoud said at the border protest site.

Palestinians also held rallies in the occupied West Bank but no major clashes with Israeli forces were immediately reported.

This year’s Nakba protests were preceded by a surge in deadly cross-border fighting between Gaza militants and Israel which ended in a ceasefire on May 6.

Israeli troops have killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded thousands in regular border protests since March 2018, according to human rights groups. U.N. investigators have said the Israeli military might be guilty of war crimes for using excessive force.

Israel has said it is defending its border against attacks against its troops and infiltration attempts by gunmen.

Israel has rejected a Palestinian right of return as a threat to maintaining a Jewish majority in a country it describes as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Frustration is growing among Palestinians as hopes fade for a two-state solution to the conflict which would give them an independent country. President Donald Trump’s announcement in December 2017 of U.S. recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital also fueled Palestinian anger.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Angus MacSwan)

Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Tense calm on Gaza-Israel border after flareup

Israeli soldiers stand in a field next to armoured Israeli military vehicles near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Schools reopened in southern Israel and traffic clogged Gaza’s streets on Wednesday in signs of a pullback from the most serious escalation of cross-border fighting in months.

But while violence eased amid Egyptian mediation, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants were on hair-trigger footing, with rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli air strikes in the enclave briefly resuming late on Tuesday after a day-long lull.

Despite dozens of rocket launchings and Israeli attacks, no deaths have been reported. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors have destroyed some of the rockets and Palestinian militants vacated facilities targeted in the air strikes.

Towns in southern Israel, where rocket-warning sirens have disrupted daily life since the current round of fighting began on Monday, reopened classrooms. In Gaza, schools were also operating and cars filled the streets.

The Gaza frontier remained tense, however, with Israeli troops and tanks deployed along the border. Both Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group made clear that attacks by the other side would not be tolerated.

Even if the crisis subsides, it could shadow Israel’s April 9 election, in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough security platform.

TENSIONS BUILDING

The latest fighting has added to tensions that were already building ahead of the first anniversary on March 30 of the start of weekly Gaza protests at the border. Some 200 Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire during those protests, and one Israeli soldier has been killed.

Israel says its use of lethal force is meant to stop attempts to breach the border and launch attack on its troops and civilians.

The protesters are demanding the right to return to lands Palestinians fled or were forced to leave in Israel during fighting that accompanied its founding in 1948.

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday’s initial rocket attack that hit the village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza. No other casualties in Israel have been reported. Twelve Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli strikes, Gaza health officials said.

Egypt was expected to pursue further truce talks on Wednesday, said a Palestinian official involved in the efforts.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with Egypt to secure a ceasefire and that a fragile calm had taken hold.

Security is a major issue for Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations that he denies. He is facing his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

In Dheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops during clashes with stone-throwers, an ambulance service official said, identifying him as a volunteer wearing a paramedic uniform. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Gareth Jones)

Israel-Hamas fighting abates along Gaza border after major escalation

Palestinians inspect a destroyed Hamas site after it was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas abated on Tuesday after a day of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, but Israel said it reserved the right to strike again and kept its forces massed at the Gaza frontier.

The biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation in months, which began on Monday with the longest-range Palestinian rocket attack to cause casualties in Israel for five years, appeared to have been curbed overnight by Egyptian mediation.

But even if brought to an end, the crisis could have an impact on an Israeli election in two weeks in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, arguing that he must stay in power to keep Israelis safe.

Israel responded to Monday’s rocket attack with a wave of strikes on targets belonging to the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza strip. Seven Israelis were injured in the initial rocket attack and five Palestinians were wounded by the retaliatory Israeli strikes, although most of the targets hit appeared to have been evacuated in advance.

A senior Israeli official on board the plane of Netanyahu — who flew home cutting short a visit to the United States to deal with the crisis — said Israel had not yet stood down.

“We are prepared to deliver another blow, if necessary,” Israeli Army Radio quoted the official as saying.

The border area fell quiet on Tuesday morning after Hamas said Egypt had brokered a truce. As in past escalations that ended with Egyptian mediation, Israel denied it had agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas, which it views as a terrorist group.

Rocket warning sirens, which had sounded in Israeli towns near the border on Monday night, fell silent by morning.

The escalation was the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2007 and 2014 and have come to the brink of all-out conflict several times since.

Security is a major issue as Netanyahu, in power for a decade, faces his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a top general. The right-wing leader is beset by corruption allegations which he denies. He argues that he has kept Israelis safe with a tough stance towards the Palestinians that could be weakened if he leaves office.

In Washington, he met U.S. President Donald Trump, who reversed decades of U.S. policy to sign a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Reporters who flew with Netanyahu quoted the senior Israeli official as saying Trump’s move was proof that Israel could retain land captured in a “defensive war”, an apparent suggestion of a permanent hold over other areas captured in 1967, such as parts of the West Bank.

“WE DON’T WANT WAR”

The Israeli military blamed Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, for Monday’s initial strike that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv. It said the rocket had been launched from the enclave, some 120 km (70 miles) away.

Retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza lit up the night sky and explosions rocked the densely-populated coastal enclave, destroying targets that included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The military said extra Israeli soldiers and tanks had been moved to the border.

In the morning, with the bombing having stopped, Gazans picked through the rubble of destroyed buildings to search for valuables and documents. Some Gaza universities were shut but schools were open, although many families kept children home.

“We don’t want war, but if Israel wants it then what should we do? We ask our factions to respond,” said Mohammad Sayed, 40. “But we hope Egypt reaches a deal to end this.”

Gaza militants fired barrages of rockets into Israel late into Monday night. Some were shot down by Israeli defenses and others landed in empty areas. Israel remained on high alert on Tuesday and ordered schools near the border closed and residents to stay near bomb shelters.

“I told my kids that everything is going to be all right and that it will be over. We trust the government will solve the problem,” Eliav Vanunu, whose house in the Israeli border town of Sderot was damaged by a rocket on Monday night, said on Israel Radio.

Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, mostly descendants of people who fled or were driven from homes in Israel on its founding in 1948.

Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war but pulled out its troops in 2005. Hamas took control two years later, and since then Israel and Egypt have maintained a security blockade that has brought Gaza’s economy to a state of collapse.

In the past year, nearly 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed during demonstrations near the border by Palestinians seeking a lifting of the blockade and the right to return to homes in Israel. Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force to protect the frontier from militants.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ran Tzabari and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel says six wounded near Tel Aviv in long-range Gaza rocket attack

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

By Rami Amichay

MISHMERET, Israel (Reuters) – A long-range rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck a house in central Israel on Monday, wounding six people in the first such incident since a 2014 war in the Palestinian enclave, Israeli authorities said.

The early morning attack on Mishmeret, an agricultural town north of Tel Aviv, came at a time of high tension ahead of the anniversary of Gaza border protests at the weekend, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Washington as he campaigns for a fifth term in an April 9 ballot.

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

Israel’s commercial capital and outlying communities had last come under such an attack during the 2014 war with Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said it was treating six occupants of a home in Mishmeret, including an infant, for wounds. TV images showed a building with extensive damage, and police said it had also been set aflame.

The strike came minutes after the Israeli military activated air raid sirens in the area and said one rocket had been launched out of the Gaza Strip, a coastal territory 50 miles (80 km) away where Hamas and other factions possess such weapons.

Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the home in Mishmeret was hit by a rocket from Gaza.

There was no immediate Palestinian confirmation.

Two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv on March 14 but caused no casualties or damage, Israel said. It blamed the rocket launches on Hamas, though a security official who declined to be identified by name or nationality later said that the salvo, which missed any built-up areas, had been set off by accident.

There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu on Monday’s incident.

His chief rival in next month’s election, centrist ex-general Benny Gantz, issued a statement accusing the rightist premier of having “bankrupted national security”.

(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Israeli warplanes strike Gaza after rockets fired toward Tel Aviv

Israeli soldiers are seen on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the border between Israel and Gaza on its Israeli side, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza early on Friday after Israel’s military said militants had fired two rockets toward the city of Tel Aviv.

The air strikes, the heaviest in five months, hit about 100 military targets belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, the military said. These included a rocket manufacturing site, a naval post and weapons facility, and a Hamas headquarters, it said.

Palestinian news media reported strikes throughout the densely populated coastal strip that is home to two million Palestinians. Four people were wounded, health ministry officials said.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of firing rockets from Gaza toward Tel Aviv – the first time the seaside city had been targeted since the 2014 Gaza War.

But Hamas denied responsibility and Israeli media, including Ha’aretz and Channel 7 News, later carried reports that the rockets might have been fired from Gaza by mistake.

A security official briefed on the situation, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters the launch was “the result of an error – that an attack on Israel was not intended. Israel holds Hamas responsible, hence the response”.

The exchange was the most serious since a botched Israeli commando incursion into Gaza last November.

In the aftermath of that episode, dozens of Israeli air strikes killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, and destroyed several buildings. Rocket attacks from Gaza sent residents of southern Israel to shelters, wounding dozens and killing a Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank.

SIRENS WAIL

The first rocket attack came on Thursday evening, with warning sirens sounding in the Tel Aviv area and residents hearing explosions.

The Israeli military said two longer-range rockets had been fired from Gaza but caused no casualties or damage. The Israelis retaliated in the early hours of Friday.

Just after dawn, six more missiles were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border towns but all but one were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the military said.

Calm was restored by mid-morning as an Egyptian delegation mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions, a Palestinian official said.

The incident immediately played into the campaign for an election in Israel on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his security credentials.

His right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, demanded that Israel resume its killings of Hamas chiefs.

“The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all,” he said on Thursday night.

Netanyahu also faced pressure from his center-left opponent, former General Benny Gantz, who said: “Only aggressive, harsh action will restore the deterrence that has eroded” under the prime minister’s watch.

Tensions have been high for the past year along the Israel-Gaza frontier, but on Friday morning Palestinian officials canceled the weekly border protests.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations that began a year ago and about 60 more have been killed in other incidents, including exchanges of fire across the border. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by Palestinian fire.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the packed, narrow enclave in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Frustration is growing in Gaza over the dim prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have expanded.

The 2014 Gaza War was the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during that war, most of them civilians, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

As smoke clears, capturing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Palestinian demonstrators shout during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City, April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

By Stephen Farrell

GAZA (Reuters) – The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often framed in black and white, an outlook captured by this image of Palestinian youths shrouded by clouds of smoke that block out everything except an isolated moment of protest and defiance.

Reuters photographer Mohammed Salem’s photograph of a handful of demonstrators in a field of dying flowers and charred grass recorded a new phenomenon in an old war the weekly Palestinian protests that began in the spring of 2018 along the Gaza-Israeli border.

The protests pitted thousands of Palestinian demonstrators against heavily armed Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fortified border fence intent on stopping the protesters from crossing or approaching the frontier.

What became known as the “Great March of Return” dominated the headlines for months, evolving into a compelling but deadly form of attritional public spectacle, all covered by photojournalists risking their lives to document it.

Taking place in a handful of accessible locations at prearranged times, the protests became battlegrounds of image and spin for both sides.

The Israeli military published video footage, pictures and social media posts in Hebrew, English and Arabic to support its message that its forces were engaged in “riot dispersal”.

Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, televised images of the Palestinian dead and wounded, and Palestinian protesters posted images from the front lines on social media.

The primary stated purpose of the protests was to revive a demand by refugees for the right to return to lands that Palestinians were driven from or fled when Israel was founded in 1948. Israel has ruled out any such right, concerned that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

But the immediate factor was Palestinian anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s decisions on Dec. 6 last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to begin preparations to move its embassy to the city that is sacred to three of the great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Trump’s move delighted Israel’s government, which regards Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people, but infuriated Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza.

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during clashes over an Israeli order to shut down a Palestinian school near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during clashes over an Israeli order to shut down a Palestinian school near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The deadliest day of the protests was May 14, when the new embassy held its opening ceremony. It fell on a symbolic date for both sides – the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel. That is a joyous day for Israelis, but an event regarded by Palestinians as their “Nakba” or Catastrophe when they lost their homeland.

The Jerusalem-Gaza juxtaposition made headlines at home and abroad, and produced a worldwide split-screen television moment as Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended the embassy ceremony, even as Israeli troops killed around 60 Palestinian protesters just over 70 km (43 miles) away.

The border protests continued and morphed into other forms.

Israelis were angered by another new phenomenon first seen in 2018 – the Palestinian ‘fire kites’ and balloons loaded with petrol bombs by Gaza militants and sent flying over the border.

Palestinians continued to call for an end to an Israeli-led blockade on 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

The conflict switched to the skies in November when a bungled Israeli commando mission inside Gaza erupted into a deadly gunfight and then the fiercest Palestinian rocket salvoes and Israeli air strikes since the 2014 war.

The skies fell quiet again as the year drew to a close, giving way to ceasefires and mediation efforts, as all sides waited for the Trump administration to unveil its long-expected Middle East peace plan.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, editing by Louise Heavens)