Israeli jets strike Islamic Jihad targets in Syria and Gaza: Israeli military

By Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fighter jets launched air strikes on suspected Islamic Jihad positions in Syria, the Israeli military said on Monday, after the militant group and Israel exchanged rockets and air strikes around Gaza.

An Israeli military statement said its forces had “struck Islamic Jihad terror targets south of Damascus” in addition to “dozens” of Islamic Jihad targets throughout the Gaza Strip.

The air strike in the Adeliyah region outside Damascus targeted what the Israeli military called “a hub of Islamic Jihad’s activity in Syria,” including the research and development of weapons.

A Palestinian militant holds a weapon as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The Israeli announcement came shortly after Syrian state media said its air defenses had intercepted “hostile targets” over the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The strike escalated the latest round of hostilities, which began around dawn on Sunday, when, Israel said, its troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video footage shot by a Gaza photographer and widely posted on social media showed what appeared to be the lifeless body of an Islamic Jihad militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

Palestinian health officials and other onlookers said two other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire directed at a group of people who had approached the area and tried to recover the body.

The images caused an uproar in Gaza, with many social media commentators calling for retaliation.

Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel, setting off air-raid sirens in communities such as Ashkelon. Israel hit back with a series of air strikes in Gaza.

The rockets sent residents of southern Israel running for shelters. Some of the rocket fire was intercepted by Israeli aerial missile defenses, and there were no reports of any Israelis injured.

The Israeli military said that among the “dozens” of targets struck in Gaza were underground infrastructure and compounds in Rafah that had been used to store raw material used for manufacturing rockets.

Flame and smoke are seen during Israeli air strikes in the southern Gaza Strip February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military source saying that Israeli planes had entered Syrian airspace and targeted areas around Damascus with a wave of guided missiles.

Syrian state-run al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage of what it said were explosions set off in the Damascus night sky by the air defenses system shooting down missiles.

The Syrian military source said most missiles were destroyed before reaching their targets and that the aftermath of the strike was being examined.

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes against targets in Syria in recent years.

In November, Islamic Jihad said Israel had targeted the house of one of its officials in Damascus, killing one of his sons.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased toward Israel.

The Palestinians fear Trump’s blueprint will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of occupied territory including blocs of Jewish settlements.

Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Egypt, said on Tuesday they had requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League council at ministerial level – which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would attend.

GAZA PROTESTS

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Abbas. “Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale!” an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

Others chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as they burned tires and posters of Trump. More protests were expected after Trump announces details of his plan later in the day.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the West Bank’s Jordan Valley – an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump’s peace plan was merely “political theater”.

“It is not a peace deal. It is the ‘bantustan-isation’ of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans,” he said, referring to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system,” he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

He met with Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz ahead of the announcement. Both were briefed on its contents.

Netanyahu said it was “the opportunity of a century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Gantz called it a “significant and historic milestone.”

A Netanyahu spokesman said he would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.

But Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it is far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on a draft of the plan fear that it will seek to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank.

Further obstacles include the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan can work without them. An Abbas spokesman urged any Arab or Muslim officials invited to the ceremony to boycott it.

Addressing their fears, Trump said on Monday: “They probably won’t want it initially…but I think in the end they will. It’s very good for them. In fact it’s overly good to them.”

But on Monday Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

“The problem is it doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative,” Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus Macswan and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict
By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s ruling right-wing government on Tuesday moved swiftly to embrace Washington’s backing for Israeli settlements, even as Palestinians and Arab leaders said it was a threat to the international rule of law.

Monday’s announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abandoned the position that settlements in Israeli-occupied territory were “inconsistent with international law”, reversing a position taken by the United States under President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in making political capital out of the announcement, as he struggles to remain in power following two inconclusive Israeli elections and possible criminal prosecution over corruption charges, which he denies.

“I admit that I am very moved,” Netanyahu said as he visited the Etzion bloc of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The Trump administration has corrected a historic injustice,” Netanyahu said. “This is a very great day for the State of Israel and an achievement that will stand for generations.”

Some Israeli analysts said the announcement had little practical effect – with settlement building already in evidence under a Netanyahu government, as it had been since the area was captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said the settlements remain in breach of international law, echoing a position taken by the International Court of Justice in an advisory opinion in 2004.

Israel disputes this, and Netanyahu has cited historical and biblical links to the West Bank in supporting Jewish settlement.

Palestinians say settlements jeopardise their goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“HOLD BACK”

Although President Donald Trump told Netanyahu in early 2017 that he would “like to see you hold back on settlement for a little bit”, the intervening period has seen repeated postponement of the White House’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan.

Trump has also made a succession of pro-Israeli initiatives.

These include U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, moving the U.S. embassy to the city in 2018 and cuts in U.S. aid to Palestinians. In March, Trump recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Hagit Ofran, Settlements Watch Director of the left-wing Israeli group Peace Now, said there were 430,000 settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, living in 132 settlements and 121 unofficial settlement outposts. About 3 million Palestinians live throughout the West Bank.

“If you want to know what the Deal of the Century plan was, we know what it is now,” said Ofran after Pompeo’s announcement. “It is to say to the Palestinians ‘you are not going to get any of your basic demands and rights’.”

INTERNATIONAL LAW

The speed and consistency of the response by Palestinian officials suggested they are familiar with headline-grabbing Trump initiatives and have decided to frame them in a wider context.

“The bias of the Trump administration towards the most extreme in Israel blinds it from seeing the basic principles of international law and consensus,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Twitter.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour said he was consulting other nations at the Security Council to “lobby a unified international position to confront the American illegal announcement regarding settlements”.

Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the U.S. decision had been decades in the making.

“Each U.S. administration, since Reagan, has pandered to Israel on settlements,” she told Reuters.

“I get the sense from the Palestinian leadership’s responses that they believe this issue has to be framed as not just about ‘us’ but about the world order that people believe in… when you go down this path it isn’t just about Palestine, this affects Crimea and other places around the world.”

FACTS ON THE GROUND

David Friedman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter that Pompeo’s announcement would “advance the cause of peace” by creating a “level playing field” for future talks.

To many Israeli settlers, the U.S. move simply recognised the status of settlements they regard as permanent.

“From the sea to the Jordan River, it belongs to the people of Israel,” said Zomi Osi, a settler speaking near the new settlement neighbourhood Ramat Givat Zeev, which is expanding along a valley in the West Bank.

But yards away in Beit Ijza, overlooking Ramat Givat Zeev and an Israeli highway built through the West Bank, retired Palestinian villager Mahmoud Salem said nothing could change the fact that the land was Palestinian.

“He (Trump) doesn’t own it, he has no right to give it to anybody and he can’t force its owners to leave it,” he said.

GAZA AND ARAB WORLD

In Gaza, where Israeli withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, Palestinian student Fatima Attallaa stood outside a building that was once part of the Israeli settlement Neve Dekalim, saying she looked forward to the day when the West Bank was also free of settlers.

“The American decision is void,” she said. “Settlements will be removed. We are at a university that was once a settlement and today it is Al-Aqsa University.”

Wider Arab and Muslim reaction was equally condemnatory.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said such an “unfortunate change” in the American position would not bring Israel security, peace or normal relations with Arab countries. Egyptian state news agency MENA quoted him as saying it would “push the legions of Israeli settlers to practise more violence and brutality against the Palestinian population.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter: “No country is above international law” and “fait accompli style declarations” had no validity.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said a U.S. change of position on settlements would have “dangerous consequences”. Calling the settlements illegal, he said they killed prospects for a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.

But in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia, the state news agency did not mention the issue after a cabinet meeting, focusing on criticism of Israeli air raids in Gaza.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Beit Ijza,; Yousef Saba in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, Dahlia Nehme in Dubai; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation
By Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes killed 13 Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday, medical officials said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 23 over a two-day escalation in violence since Israel launched strikes to kill an Islamic Jihad commander.

From early morning Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck from the air, resuming after an overnight lull. There were reports of injuries but no deaths inside Israel, where the military said it shot many of the rockets down with air defenses.

The bodies of six people were brought to Gaza’s Shifa hospital in taxis and ambulances early Wednesday, as relatives wept and screamed. Medics and witnesses said they were civilians who lived in densely populated neighborhoods.

In the north of Gaza City, family members said Rafat Ayyad and his two sons Islam, 25, and Ameer, aged 9, were killed by Israeli fire while rushing to hospital to visit another son who had earlier been injured in a separate attack.

“I got wounded and I called my father. He was coming to see me in hospital and two of my brothers were with him on the motorcycle when they were hit by Israel,” Loay Ayyad, 18, told Reuters during the funeral.

The Israeli military said that it had struck at least five rocket squads on Wednesday morning. Other targets included a rocket warhead manufacturing facility, an Islamic Jihad headquarters and a weapons storage site. Islamic Jihad confirmed that two of its militants were killed in separate strikes.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS

The fighting, the worst in months, erupted on Tuesday after Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a senior commander of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, accusing him of masterminding and planning attacks against Israel.

In response to the killing of Atta and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming on Wednesday morning.

“We will not allow the enemy to return to the policy of cowardly assassination under any circumstances,” said a statement by the ‘Joint Command’ of Palestinian armed factions.

The joint command includes Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza. But while Hamas appeared to be giving the green light for Islamic Jihad to continue, the larger group did not appear to be launching rockets itself, a decision that could reduce the likelihood of the violence escalating further.

Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous confrontations and to avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, following three wars from 2008-2014. In the past Israel has held Hamas responsible for rockets fired by any group in Gaza, but this time it appeared to be avoiding Hamas targets.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday.

“The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.

SIRENS AND EXPLOSIONS

The rockets from Gaza sent Israelis rushing to shelters in towns near the Gaza border and deeper in the country, with air raid sirens going off as far north as Tel Aviv and missiles striking Israeli highways and towns.

The Israeli military assembled armored vehicles along the border with Gaza, though a ground incursion into the territory seemed unlikely at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, having killed the Islamic Jihad commander, was not interested in a broader conflict.

“We don’t want escalation, but we are responding to every attack against us with a very sharp attack and response. Islamic Jihad best understand that now rather than when it’s too late for it,” Netanyahu said.

In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day, as were schools in much of southern Israel.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew troops and settlements in 2005. The territory has been controlled since 2007 by Hamas while under an Israeli security blockade, also backed by Egypt. The blockade has wrecked Gaza’s economy, and the United Nations says its 2 million residents have only limited access to electricity, clean water and medicine.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)

Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza

Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel killed a top commander from the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, drawing rocket salvoes that reached as far as Tel Aviv in the worst cross-border fighting in months.

The rare targeted strike which killed Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu Al-Atta in Gaza came as Syrian state media said a separate missile attack had hit the home of an Islamic Jihad official in Damascus, killing two people including one of his sons.

Syria said Israel carried out the Damascus strike. Israel did not comment.

As the sound of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes echoed throughout Gaza and Israeli towns across the border, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Al-Batsh spoke at the midday Gaza funeral of Al-Atta.

“Israel executed two coordinated attacks, in Syria and in Gaza, in a declaration of war,” he said. Mourners fired guns into the air, chanting “revenge!”

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Al-Atta as a “ticking bomb” who was responsible for a string of recent cross-border rocket, drone and sniper attacks and was suspected of planning more very soon.

“Israel is not interested in escalation, but we will do everything required to defend ourselves,” said Netanyahu, who oversaw Israel’s last Gaza war in 2014. “This could take time.”

Financial market reaction in Israel was muted, anticipating no major escalation. Recent such rounds of violence across the Gaza border have ended with the help of Egyptian and U.N. mediation.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, joined Islamic Jihad in condemning Israel.

Though the two factions are sworn to the destruction of Israel, they have not always been in agreement over strategy. Islamic Jihad, free of the burden of governing Gaza’s impoverished two million Palestinians, has at times chafed at Hamas’s efforts to secure a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi, said Al-Atta had been obstructing the truce bid. Hamas said Israel “bears full responsibility for all consequences of this escalation,” and pledged that Al-Atta’s death “will not go unpunished.”

SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN?

The exchange of fire sent civilians on both sides huddling for shelter and forced businesses and schools to close.

Gaza authorities reported seven people killed, including Al-Atta, 42 and his wife in the pre-dawn strike that destroyed a floor in their home, scattering debris around their neighborhood.

Further air-strikes in Gaza, two of which the Israeli military said targeted Islamic Jihad rocket crews, killed five more Palestinian men. Islamic Jihad confirmed one was a member of their group.

Gaza medical officials said 24 Palestinians had been wounded, as ambulances streaked through abandoned streets and Israeli missiles landed, many in open fields, apparently targeting hidden rocket silos.

In Israel, officials said 25 people had sustained mostly light injuries. Among the sites hit by Palestinian rockets were a toy factory in the border town of Sderot and a highway where CCTV footage showed cars and a bus barely escaping the impact.

The shekel <ILS=> was, by the end of the day up 0.1% against the dollar, recovering from an earlier dip. The main Tel Aviv share index <.TA125> closed 0.1% lower.

The Israeli military said that about 200 rockets were fired at Israel, some of them reaching as far as the country’s commercial hub Tel Aviv. Dozens were intercepted and dozens more fell in open areas, the military said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said on Twitter:

“Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Islamist terrorist org backed by Iran, is again attacking Israel with 100’s of missiles aimed at civilians. We stand w(ith) our friend & ally Israel.”

Israel casts rising Gaza tensions as part of a regional struggle with arch-foe Iran that has also played out in Syria.

Right-wing Netanyahu has invoked such scenarios in trying to form a broad coalition government with center-left rivals to secure a fifth term after two inconclusive elections this year.

Islamic Jihad said the target of the Damascus attack was the home of a political leader, Akram Al-Ajouri. Israel’s Army Radio described Al-Ajouri as head of Islamic Jihad’s military wing. It was unclear whether Al-Ajouri was hurt in the strike.

At the scene of the Damascus strike, a Reuters journalist said the top floor of a two-storey building had been completely scorched. A neighbor said he had been woken up at around 4 a.m. by three explosions that had blown open the doors in his house.

Syrian state media said six people were wounded as well as the two people killed, describing the target as a civilian home in Mezzah, a western district of the capital where several embassies are located.

In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iran and the Tehran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, which it calls the biggest threat to its borders.

(Additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Tom Perry in Beirut, Steven Scheer and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher)

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)