Netanyahu avoids early elections for now after minister’s about-face

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday avoided an early election for now after a coalition partner backed away from toppling a government hanging on to power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s U-turn surprised many pundits who had predicted the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party would quit in protest after Netanyahu rejected his demand to be named defense minister and assumed the post himself.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of the government, which has a majority of just one seat in parliament since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense chief last week.

Outflanking Netanyahu on the right, Lieberman, an ultranationalist, lashed out in his resignation announcement at the government’s acceptance of a ceasefire with Gaza’s dominant armed group, Hamas, amid a surge in cross-border violence

“You win some, you lose some,” Bennett said in a televised address, shrugging off Netanyahu’s rejection of his bid for the defense post, long regarded in Israel as its second most important cabinet portfolio.

Had Bennett pulled his party out of the weakened coalition, as Jewish Home officials had threatened, Netanyahu would have been left with a minority government, making an election likely ahead of a national ballot that is not due until November 2019.

Bennett said Jewish Home party was withdrawing all its political demands and would stand by the four-term prime minister.

SECURITY CHALLENGES

In a speech late on Sunday appealing to coalition partners to remain loyal, Netanyahu cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies.

He repeated that theme in remarks to parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, in which he said that “together we can surmount any challenge and ensure Israel’s security”.

Such comments have left political and military affairs commentators in Israel pondering whether Netanyahu is indeed planning new military action, either in Gaza or possibly against Hezbollah guerrilla missile sites in Lebanon, or engaging in political spin that would appeal to his right-wing voter base.

An opinion poll last week suggested that Israelis, including those living outside border areas that were struck by more than 400 rockets from Gaza during the flareup, were unhappy with Netanyahu over the continued threat from the Israeli-blockaded territory.

It was a rare dip in popularity for a leader who has been on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“National security is beyond politics,” Netanyahu said in his speech on Sunday. “I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”

In his own address, Bennett said he wants to believe that Netanyahu was serious about the threats facing Israel.

If so, he said, “I say here to the prime minister: “We are withdrawing all our political demands and we will stand by you in this mighty task, so that Israel starts winning again.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Richard Balmforth)

Gaza factions agree to cease fire if Israel halts attack: Palestinian official

A Palestinian looks at the remains of a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant groups in Gaza said on Tuesday they would halt cross-border attacks immediately if Israel did the same after the most serious exchanges of aerial fire since a seven-week war in 2014.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, responded by putting the onus on the Palestinians to stop their strikes, saying Israel’s actions would be determined by their “steps on the ground”.

Since Monday, Israeli air strikes have killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, armed factions said. Rocket attacks from Gaza killed a Palestinian, a resident of the occupied West Bank, living in an apartment in Israel, where he worked.

The salvoes were the fiercest since the Gaza war in 2014, the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade as part of the wider Israel-Palestinian conflict.

On Tuesday, the joint command of the Palestinian armed factions in Gaza said in a statement they would abide by a ceasefire mediated by neighboring Egypt “as long as the Zionist enemy does the same”.

As far as the factions were concerned, an official in one of the Palestinian groups told Reuters, “the truce has gone into effect”, conditional on Israel’ actions.

Hamas and other armed factions fired over 400 rockets or mortar bombs across the fenced border after carrying out a surprise guided-missile attack on Monday on a bus that wounded an Israeli soldier, the military said.

Asked if Israel was heading towards a ceasefire, Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told YNet Internet TV:

“I would say that a more accurate definition is that the Israeli military landed a harsh and unprecedented blow on Hamas and the terrorist groups in Gaza, and we will see if that will suffice or whether further blows will be required.”

Hamas said it was retaliating for a botched Israeli commando raid in Gaza that killed one of its commanders and six other gunmen on Sunday. An Israeli colonel was also killed in that incident.

Sirens rang out in southern Israeli towns on Tuesday and people ran for shelter after Palestinian rockets crashed into several homes overnight. The military said the Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted more than 100 projectiles.

Israel responded with dozens of air strikes, hitting buildings overnight that included a Hamas intelligence compound and the studios of Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Television, whose employees had received advance warnings from the military to evacuate.

In aerial attacks on Tuesday, Israel’s military said it took out a rocket-launching squad and fired at several Palestinians infiltrating through the border fence around Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

In Gaza City, people gathered in front of a large mound of debris that was once a multi-floor structure. It was flanked by five-story buildings still standing after the air strike, their shattered stone facades adding to the tall pile of rubble.

Israeli armoured personnel carriers (APC) are seen in a field in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli armoured personnel carriers (APC) are seen in a field in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

WEEKLY VIOLENCE ALONG BORDER

Violence has simmered since Palestinians launched weekly border protests on March 30 to demand the easing of the blockade on Gaza and the right to return to lands lost in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding. Israeli troops have killed more than 220 Palestinians during the confrontations, which have included border breaches.

In fighting over the past two days, Israeli missiles flattened seven buildings, mostly in Gaza City including the TV station. Witnesses said warning missiles, which carry small warheads, were fired first.

Abdallah Abu Habboush, 22, said he was awakened by shouts from neighbors to get out of his residential building after what Israel terms the “tap on the roof” warning. They all gathered in a room on the first floor to wait out the attack.

“Old men who were with us fainted because of the smoke,” he said, adding that he had no idea why the structure was hit. The An Israeli military spokesman said all of the buildings targeted were “owned, operated and used by Hamas”.

In the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, a video shot by a resident showed a bleeding woman, lying in the debris of an apartment and covered by dust, weakly raising her arm, next to the body of the Palestinian man killed in the attack. She was taken to hospital in critical condition.

Hamas, which is branded a terrorist group in the West, took control in Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the small coastal territory.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan)

Biblical vistas, modern-day security along Israel-Egypt border road

A general view shows the border fence between Israel and Egypt in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER (Reuters) – A normally sealed-off road along the Israel-Egypt border was opened for a Jewish holiday, giving travelers on the Israeli side a glimpse into the Sinai desert backdrop to the biblical journey commemorated by the festival.

Israeli tourists stand at a watch point over looking the Israel-Egypt border during the Sukkot holiday in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli tourists stand at a watch point over looking the Israel-Egypt border during the Sukkot holiday in southern Israel September 26, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

The Sukkot holiday celebrates the biblical story of God’s protection of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt and 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, which religious scholars say included the Sinai.

Israel’s narrow Route 10 runs along the Egyptian border from the Gaza frontier in the north before connecting to a highway into Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Curving along an Israeli security fence, it is usually closed to civilian traffic and patrolled regularly by the Israeli military. Egyptian watchtowers dot the other side.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, but fighting has raged in areas of the Sinai in recent years between Islamic State militants and the Egyptian military.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Palestinians say one killed, dozens wounded as Israeli troops fire on Gaza protest

Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – One Palestinian was killed and dozens other wounded when Israeli forces opened fire during a weekly demonstration near the Israel-Gaza border on Friday, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.

The Israeli army said soldiers had come under attack by Palestinians who hurled grenades, explosive devices, burning tyres and rocks at them and the border fence.

The soldiers, the military said, responded with “riot dispersal means” and fired “in accordance with standard operating procedures”.

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

It said an Israeli aircraft also carried out strikes in Gaza. A position belonging to the Hamas Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip was hit, according to witnesses.

Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesman said one Palestinian was killed and 54 others were wounded by live fire.

One Israeli soldier was lightly wounded, the army said.

Since Gazans began holding weekly border protests on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 183 Palestinians and wounded thousands. A Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Israel says Hamas deliberately provokes violence at the protests, a charge Hamas denies.

(Reporting by Saleh Salem)

Iran puts on ‘show of strength’ military exercise in Gulf

FILE PHOTO: Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets of the Iranian army fly past during a military parade to commemorate army day in Tehran April 17, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and army carried out a joint aerial military drill in the Gulf on Friday in what official media said indicated the “pounding reply” that awaited the country’s enemies.

Tehran has suggested in recent weeks that it could take military action in the Gulf to block other countries’ oil exports in retaliation for U.S. sanctions intended to halt its sales of crude.

Washington maintains a fleet in the Gulf that protects oil shipping routes.

“In addition to a show of strength, this ceremony is a message of peace and friendship for friendly and neighboring countries,” Colonel Yousef Safipour, the deputy commander of the army for public relations said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“And if the enemies and arrogant powers have an eye on the borders and land of Islamic Iran they will receive a pounding reply in the fraction of a second.”

Mirage, F-4 and Sukhoi-22 jets took part in the exercise on Friday, according to IRNA.

The Islamic Republic has a large naval military drill, including approximately 600 naval vessels, planned on Saturday, IRNA reported.

Separately, a prominent Iranian cleric said Friday that the time had come for Israel to say goodbye. He did not give any further information on what that could mean.

“Mr. Netanyahu, you and your intelligence services know well that the time to say goodbye has arrived and what position of strength the resistance of Hezbollah and the people of Gaza are in,” Hassan Abu-Torabi Fard, the temporary Friday prayers leader in Tehran, said, according to Fars News.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh)

Palestinian ministry rolls back statement that Gaza boy was killed by Israeli gunfire

Palestinian demonstrators gather atop a hill during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

GAZA (Reuters) – A medical source in the Palestinian Health Ministry backed away on Monday from an assertion that an 11-year-old boy killed at a protest on Friday at the border with Israel had been shot by Israeli soldiers.

“The boy died of a head injury,” said the source, who asked not be identified, declining to give specifics and stopping short of attributing the death to Israeli gunfire.

On Friday, Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, said the youth, Shadi Abdel-Al, had been shot dead by Israeli troops.

Two other Palestinians were killed during the weekly protest by Israeli live fire, local medics said on Friday.

An Israeli military spokeswoman asked on Monday about the circumstances of the boy’s death and media reports that he had been killed by a stone thrown during the protest, referred Reuters to comments tweeted by the military’s Arabic-language spokesman.

The spokesman tweeted that there were “increasing indicators from Gaza that question the credibility” of the Palestinian Health Ministry’s original statement about the boy’s death.

“According to the indicators and testimonies, the boy was killed as a result of an injury from stones thrown during the violent riots,” the spokesman wrote.

Since March 30, Palestinians pressing claims against Israel have mounted stone-throwing protests that have included attempts to breach the Israeli border fence with Gaza, run by the Islamist group Hamas.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Stephan Farrell and Jeffrey Heller; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Hamas says indirect Gaza truce talks with Israel ‘advanced’

Israeli soldiers walk around on the Israeli side near the border line between Israel and the Gaza Strip July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.N.- and Egyptian-mediated talks on a deal to tamp down tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip are in “advanced stages”, a senior member of the Palestinian enclave’s dominant Islamist Hamas group said on Wednesday.

The remarks were echoed by a top Israeli lawmaker, suggesting a possible breakthrough after four months of confrontations and clashes that stirred mutual threats of war.

Still the border remained tense on Wednesday. The Israel army said militant gunfire struck an engineering vehicle along the frontier, and that in response a tank fired at a Hamas post. No injuries were reported.

Shortly after, air raid sirens went off in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, sending residents running for shelter. At least two rockets fell in the area and one person was hurt, according to emergency services.

Palestinian officials then said Israel carried out an air strike in northern Gaza, causing no injuries.

Gazans launched weekly, sometimes violent, border protests against Israel on March 30, their anger exacerbated by a grinding Israeli-Egyptian blockade and funding cuts by Hamas’s rival, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli army has killed at least 158 Palestinians, while a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier. Israel has lost tracts of forest and farmland to fires set by incendiary kites and helium balloons flown over the frontier. There have also been several, mostly bloodless shelling exchanges.

Neither Hamas nor Israel, which last fought a war in 2014, appears keen on another full-blown conflict. But public demands by either side for a detainee release by the other appear to have been a stumbling block in securing a long-term truce.

“We can say that actions led by the United Nations and Egypt are in advanced stages and we hope it could yield some good from them,” Khalil Al-Hayya, deputy Hamas chief in Gaza, told Al Jazeera television.

“What is required is for calm to be restored along the border between us and the Zionist enemy (Israel).”

“NEW DAY”

Israel has played down prospects for a comprehensive ceasefire, speaking in terms of a more limited quid-pro-quo.

In return for calm in Gaza, Israeli officials said on Sunday they would reopen a commercial border terminal that had been shuttered in response to the fire damage, and expand a Palestinian fishing zone.

Netanyahu called off a trip to Colombia this week to attend to the Gaza truce talks, and was due to convene his decision-making security cabinet on Thursday to discuss the negotiations.

Avi Dichter, the committee of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, struck a cautiously upbeat note on Wednesday. “I very much hope that we are on the brink of a new day on the matter of Gaza,” he told reporters.

Neither the United Nations nor Egypt have publicly detailed their proposals for Gaza, beyond saying they should bring extensive economic relief for its 2 million Palestinians, many of them plagued by unemployment and failing public utilities.

Hayya said foreign donors were collecting “hundreds of millions of dollars” for electricity, water, health and job-creation projects in Gaza, but that these “require stability”.

Israel wants to recover the bodies of two soldiers killed in the Gaza war, and wants freedom for two of its civilians who wandered into the enclave, in exchange for any far-ranging truce deal with Hamas.

For its part, Hamas demands that Israel free Palestinian security prisoners – a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners balk at.

“We want to free our brave prisoners and we have no objection to beginning now,” Hayya said. “Let it be a prisoner swap deal, (Palestinian) prisoners in return for Zionist soldiers.”

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)

Israel asks Cyprus to consider shipping route for Gaza: Cypriot official

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian fishermen ride their boats as they return from fishing at the seaport of Gaza City early morning September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

ATHENS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has asked Cyprus to examine the possibility of establishing a shipping point on the island for sending goods to the Gaza Strip, a Cypriot government spokesman said on Tuesday.

Goods shipped by sea usually come to an Israeli port and are transferred to Gaza over land. Israel enforces a maritime blockade on Gaza, which it says is meant to prevent weapons from reaching the territory ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Both Egypt and Israel restrict movement across Gaza’s land borders as well. The United Nations has called for a freer flow of goods into Gaza, where most Palestinians live in poverty.

The idea of setting up a facility in Cyprus has been floated for years, and Israel recently made a request to explore the issue, according to Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou.

“It is an old issue which is now being re-discussed,” Prodromou told Reuters.

“There will be contacts between the government and all interested parties in the region and, possibly, a decision will be taken. At the moment no decision has been taken. The request is being examined, it hasn’t been rejected,” he said.

Prodromou did not say when the request was made, but Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Nicosia last week.

An Israeli news report late on Monday said Lieberman had reached an understanding with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to pursue the port plan.

Lieberman’s office, in response to the report, said that Israel is working internationally in a number of ways to try to “change the reality in Gaza”, but that any move to improve the humanitarian situation depends on the return of Israelis who are missing or being held prisoner in Gaza.

“Beyond that we cannot relate to the details,” it said in a statement.

Israel has demanded the return of two Israeli civilians who it says crossed into Gaza and are being held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war. Hamas says it is holding them but does not give any details.

Hamas officials declined to comment on the port plan.

At least one Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, has been promoting the Cyprus port idea as a way to create a conduit into Gaza that does not go through Israel. Another Israeli cabinet minister has raised the idea of building an artificial island off the Gaza coast, a much larger project.

“I think that we can combine our security on one hand and open Gaza to the outer world on the other hand,” Steinitz said of the port idea in an interview in Washington.

A port would be a faster solution than an artificial island. Opening a port in Cyprus could take only a few months after getting international approval and could be shut down quickly if somebody abuses it, Steinitz said. Building an artificial island could take 10 years, he said.

Security checks at the piers, however, would have to be handled by Israel together with an international group such as the United Nations, Steinitz said earlier this month.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Nidal al-Mughrabi; Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)

Militants’ rockets, Israeli air strikes heat up Gaza border

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ori Lewis

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Several dozen rockets and mortar bombs launched at Israel by Palestinians in Gaza, and Israeli air strikes on the enclave’s dominant Hamas militant group, raised the heat along the border on Wednesday.

Despite the biggest flare-up in weeks in the area, no deaths were reported. But pledges by Israel and Palestinian militants to continue to respond to any attacks against them held the potential for broader conflict.

“I don’t intend to detail the actions we plan on Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech to graduating military officers that was aired on national radio.

He added: “Force will be stepped up as much as required. We are prepared for every eventuality, and our enemies would do well to understand that – right now.”

The Israeli military said Hamas fired about 45 rockets and mortar bombs at southern Israel overnight, and that Israeli aircraft attacked 25 targets belonging to the group in response.

A graphic distributed by the military showed 21 impact sites in Israeli territory and it released a photo of one crater just outside a school. It said seven projectiles were intercepted, at least three fell short inside Gaza and that it was not immediately able to account for the others.

A Hamas spokesman said that, as part of a policy of “bombardment for bombardment”, the barrages were retaliation for an earlier Israeli air strike.

The Israeli military said that in that raid, it attacked three targets in a Hamas compound, calling it a response to the repeated launching of incendiary kites that have burned large tracts of parched farm fields and woodland in southern Israel.

Two Hamas security men were lightly hurt in one of the air raids, residents said. Sirens sounded throughout the night in parts of Israel’s south, sending residents into fortified rooms that are mandatory in homes.

No Israeli casualties were reported.

Israel has accused Hamas of stoking violence in an attempt to deflect domestic opinion from Gaza’s energy shortages and faltering economy.

Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza and tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods at its land borders. Egypt has also kept its own Gaza frontier largely closed. Both countries cite security concerns for the measures, which have deepened economic hardship.

At least 127 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during mass demonstrations along the Gaza border since March 30.

Protesters are demanding a right of return to what is now Israel for those who fled or were forced to flee their homes in the war around its creation in 1948, and for millions of their descendants. Israel rules that out as demographic suicide.

Israel’s deadly tactics in confronting the weekly Friday protests have drawn international condemnation. But support has come from its main ally, the United States, which like Israel, has cast blame on Hamas.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli gunfire, tear gas injure 100 as Gaza protest resumes

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest marking al-Quds Day, (Jerusalem Day), at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops fired tear gas and live bullets at Palestinians taking part in weekly protests at the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday, injuring at least 100 people, medics said.

The army said it was taking action to disperse thousands of Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks the troops and burned tyres, and prevent any breach of the fortified frontier fence.

Israeli forces have killed at last 120 Palestinians in protests along the border since a campaign was launched on March 30 to demand the right to return to ancestral lands that are now part of Israel, hospital officials say. Israel says the dead included Hamas and other militants who used civilians as cover for infiltration attempts.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)