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)

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)

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)

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)

Gaza militants launch barrages across border, Israel hits back with air strikes

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Palestinian militants on Tuesday launched their heaviest barrages against Israel since the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli aircraft struck back in a surge of fighting after weeks of border violence.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from either side after the Israeli military said more than 25 mortar bombs and rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip in several salvoes in the morning and afternoon.

Israeli planes attacked at least seven facilities belonging to armed group Islamic Jihad and the territory’s dominant Hamas movement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “powerful” response.

The Israeli military said several of the projectiles fired from Gaza were shot down by its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten, damaging its walls and scattering the playground with debris and shrapnel, about an hour before it was scheduled to open for the day.

There was no claim of responsibility from any of the militant groups in Gaza, but the attack comes after Islamic Jihad vowed to take revenge after three of its members were killed by Israeli tank shelling.

Violence has soared along the Gaza frontier in recent weeks during which 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations for a right of return to ancestral lands now in Israel.

A Hamas spokesman defended Tuesday’s attacks as a “natural response to Israeli crimes”. In similarly phrased remarks, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said “the blood of our people is not cheap”.

Gaza residents said at least seven training or security facilities belonging to Islamic Jihad and Hamas were hit in the Israeli air strikes.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the target sites. The powerful explosions shook buildings nearby, causing panic among rush hour crowds on streets and in markets. The Gazan Ministry of Education said shrapnel from one missile flew into a school.

The Israeli military said it was “carrying out activities in the Gaza Strip”, without elaborating.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was deeply concerned by “the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza towards communities in southern Israel”.

Calling for restraint by all parties, he said at least one of the mortar bombs “hit in the immediate vicinity of a kindergarten and could have killed or injured children”.

Amid international condemnation for its use of lethal force at the mass demonstrations, Israel said many of the dead were militants and that the army was repelling attacks on the border fence. Palestinians and their supporters say most of the protesters were unarmed civilians and Israel was using excessive force against them.

BLOCKADE CHALLENGE

Organizers of the Palestinian border protests launched a boat from Gaza on Tuesday in a challenge to Israel’s maritime blockade of the enclave.

“I want to make a future for myself, I want to live,” said Ehab Abu Armana, 28, before he and 14 other protesters boarded the boat. The Israeli navy was widely expected to stop the vessel, which the organizers said would be accompanied for a short distance by several other boats.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014 and Israeli settlements built on occupied territory which Palestinians seek for a state have expanded.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Israeli fire kills Palestinian at Gaza border, with more frontier protests ahead

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fire killed a Palestinian at the Gaza border on Thursday and another died of wounds suffered several days ago, health officials said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead in a week of frontier protests and violence to 19.

The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted an armed militant near the security fence along the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians began a six-week-long protest last Friday in tent encampments along the fenced border of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million ruled by the militant Hamas Islamist group.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

The latest deaths are likely to add to international concerns over the violence, which human rights groups have said involved live fire against unarmed demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life. Israel says it is doing what is necessary to defend its border and prevent it from being breached.

Sixteen Palestinians died after being shot by Israeli troops on the first day of the protest, Palestinian medical officials said, and another was killed on Tuesday.

A 33-year-old man, hit by Israeli fire a few days ago near one of the tent cities, died on Thursday, the health officials said.

The military said that during the protests its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the border fence or rolling burning tyres and throwing rocks.

Some of the dead were identified by Palestinian militant groups as members.

LETHAL FORCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s deaths and appealed to those involved to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties or place civilians in harm’s way.

U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun, commenting on the violence, has said lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described most of those killed as “terrorists …active in the armed wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. The two groups advocate the destruction of Israel, which along with the West, regards them as terrorist organizations.

Many of the demonstrators who turned out for the start of the protest campaign returned to their homes and jobs over the week. But organizers expect large crowds again on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

Hamas announced on Thursday it would pay $3,000 to the family of anyone killed in the protests, $500 to Palestinians critically wounded and $200 to those who sustain more minor injuries.

Israeli leaders have said payments by Palestinian authorities to the families of militants killed or imprisoned by Israel encourages attacks on Israelis. Palestinians revere brethren killed in the conflict with Israel as martyrs.

Visiting the frontier this week, Lieberman warned protesters “against continuing the provocation and said that “every person who comes close to the fence is endangering their lives”.

Protesters have been stocking up on tyres and say they intend to burn thousands of them at the border and also use mirrors and lasers to distract Israeli sharpshooters across the frontier on Friday.

Speaking on Army Radio, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: “We are prepared for every scenario, even an attempt to cause sharpshooters to lose focus.”

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority.

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians are furious at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Its eastern half was taken by Israel in a 1967 war and is wanted by Palestinians for the capital of a future state.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by William Maclean)

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

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

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lee Marzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRANIAN SUPPORT

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

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

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

Israel also has problems elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesman, agreed.

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

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

Six killed as Israel destroys Gaza tunnel

An Israeli soldier walks near the border line, between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in Israel October 30, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Six Palestinian militants were killed on Monday when Israel blew up what it said was a tunnel being dug across the Gaza Strip border.

A source for the Islamic Jihad militant group said Arafat Abu Marshould, head of the faction’s armed wing in central Gaza, was killed along with a senior associate and two other gunmen. The group said it had put its fighters on “full alert.”

The armed wing of the Islamist Hamas group said two of its gunmen were killed while trying to rescue Islamic Jihad men working in the tunnel. Gaza health officials said nine people were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party, said “groundbreaking technology” aided the tunnel’s discovery, but gave no details.

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

During the last Gaza war in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces and threaten civilian communities near the frontier, a counterpoint to the Iron Dome anti-missile system that largely protected the country’s heartland from militant rocket barrages.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the tunnel destroyed on Monday was in the process of being dug from the Gaza town of Khan Younis across the border, where it was blown up.

Asked by reporters if Hamas, rather than another armed faction, had dug it, Conricus said: “I cannot confirm that.”

“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) does not intend to escalate the situation but stands prepared for a variety of scenarios,” Conricus said. “The working assumption is that this is not the only tunnel that Palestinian terrorist organizations are trying to dig.”

“We see Hamas as being responsible for any attempt emanating from its territory, and carried out by people who are under its authority, to impinge on our sovereignty,” Netanyahu told the Likud lawmakers, stopping short of accusing Hamas directly of digging the tunnel.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab in a statement said Israel’s bombing of “a tunnel of the resistance is a terrorist aggression” and Palestinian resistance factions retained the right to respond “at the suitable time”.

Hamas reached a reconciliation deal with Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority earlier this month, a decade after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a brief civil war.

Israel and the United States have called for Hamas to be disarmed as part of the pact so Israeli peace efforts with Abbas, which collapsed in 2014, could proceed. Hamas has rejected the demand.

On Saturday, UNRWA, the main U.N. welfare agency for Palestinians said it had discovered “what appeared to be a tunnel” underneath one of its schools in Gaza on Oct. 15 and had sealed the cavity.

 

 

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet Lawrence)