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)

Israeli military begins sealing off cross-border tunnels from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A photo taken during a guided tour by the Israeli army shows a view inside a tunnel which reportedly connects Lebanon and Israel, near the border by the northern Israeli town of Metula December 19, 2018. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday began to seal off four tunnels that it said had been dug by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon.

The work was being carried out on the Israeli side of the frontier demarcation, known as the “Blue Line”, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels with the aim of launching cross-border attacks with backing from its regional sponsor Iran. Hezbollah has yet to comment.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have said they had so far confirmed the existence of four tunnels which the Israeli army discovered in recent weeks in the vicinity of the border.

Conricus said the military would “neutralize and destroy” the tunnels. Some were built with concrete components while others were dug directly into rock,” he said.

“Preliminary work has started,” Conricus said. “We warn anybody against approaching the openings of the tunnels or staying close to them, all of the tunnels, on the Lebanese side.”

He said Israel had asked the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, to convey the warning to the Lebanese army.

“The end result is that Hezbollah will no longer be able to utilize these tunnels in order to terrorize Israeli civilians.”

Conricus said the work was likely to be completed in a matter of hours.

Israel has called for UNIFIL to deal with the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border. The Israeli military has said it holds the Beirut government responsible for breaching Security Council resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war with Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has said Lebanon is committed to implementing 1701.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon. Under the resolution, Lebanon’s army is responsible for security on its side of the border in a zone from which any other armed force, including Hezbollah, is banned.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel may expand anti-tunnel operation into Lebanon, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Israeli drilling equipment is seen next to the border with Lebanon, near the Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, seen from the Israel's side December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is prepared to take action in Lebanon against Hezbollah cross-border tunnels if necessary, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

Israel’s military said earlier this week that it had found a number of passages dug across the Israel-Lebanon border to be used in carrying out attacks inside Israel. The Israeli military sent mechanical diggers, troops and anti-tunneling equipment to the border to shut them down.

The Israeli military, which launched the operation on Tuesday, has said its activity would, for now, stop on the Israeli side of the border.

But Israeli news media on Thursday quoted an unnamed senior official saying that Israel could extend its activity into Lebanon, and on Friday Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz reiterated that messages.

“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side – then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Katz told Radio Tel Aviv 102FM.

What form the action would take was not clear. Over the past year, at least 15 tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel were found and destroyed, the Israeli military said.

The United Nations peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), confirmed the existence of a tunnel near the “blue line” frontier between the two countries on Thursday, describing it as a “serious occurrence”.

In the aftermath of the Israeli tunnel announcement, the situation has remained calm on both sides of the border. But the Israeli operation has brought renewed attention to a frontier across which Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006.

The Israeli military said in a statement on Thursday that it “holds the Lebanese government, the Lebanese Armed Forces and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon responsible for all events transpiring in and emanating from Lebanon.”

It added that an Israeli military commander had shown one of the tunnels to the head of UNIFIL, Major-General Sefano Del Col, and it urged UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to clear the area of tunnels.

UNIFIL said in its statement it was “engaged with the parties to pursue urgent follow-up action”.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has instructed the country’s envoy to the U.N. to complain that Israel is waging “a diplomatic and political campaign against Lebanon in preparation for attacks against it”, Hezbollah’s l-Manar TV said.

Since the 2006 war, Israel has largely refrained from striking at Hezbollah on Lebanese soil, but it has carried out dozens of attacks in Syria against what it said were advanced weapons shipments to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, editing by Larry King)

Israel releases images alleging Hezbollah missile project in Beirut

A handout picture released from the Israel Defence Forces on September 27, 2018. REUTERS/GPO/Handout via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday released a video clip and photos of what it said were Hezbollah Shi’ite militia rocket building sites in Lebanon.

The images were distributed minutes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly that Israel had evidence that Iran was helping Hezbollah give its missiles precision-guided accuracy.

A handout picture released from the Israel Defence Forces on September 27, 2018. REUTERS/GPO/Handout via Reuters

A handout picture released from the Israel Defence Forces on September 27, 2018. REUTERS/GPO/Handout via Reuters

“In Lebanon, Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles,

missiles that can target deep inside Israel within an accuracy of 10

meters (yards),” he said.

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the Israeli assertions in Netanyahu’s speech and in the five photographs and the 76-second clip released by the Israel Defence Forces.

The clip refers to a “Missile Accuracy Project (MAP)” which Israel said Hezbollah had tried to transfer “to the heart of the city of Beirut.”

The Israeli military said the deployment of the facilities close to Beirut international airport were “knowingly jeopardizing the Lebanese civilian population.”

A handout picture released from the Israel Defence Forces on September 27, 2018. REUTERS/GPO/Handout via Reuters

A handout picture released from the Israel Defence Forces on September 27, 2018. REUTERS/GPO/Handout via Reuters

In Beirut, Hezbollah’s media officer Muhammad Afif declined to comment on the report.

(Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by William Maclean)

Israeli air force gives Tel Aviv a scare as Syria tensions flare

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter jet releases flares during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli police emergency lines lit up on Thursday after warplanes roared over the Tel Aviv coast, dropping anti-missile flares and performing aerobatics at a time of tension along the border with Syria.

It was just a rehearsal – practice flights are held every year – for the Israeli Air Force’s annual Independence Day national flypast on April 19, but no prior announcement was made.

“Many calls were received from worried citizens about noise from a squadron of planes in the Tel Aviv area,” police said in statement. “We would like to make clear they were training for the Independence Day aerial display. There’s no emergency.”

Under clear skies over Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean beach, two F-15 jets maneuvered through a series of sharp turns, climbs and dives in what appeared to be a mock dogfight as the sound of their engines crackled through the streets.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, and Israel held top-level security consultations over concerns it might be a target for Syrian or Iranian retaliation.

Trump said on Thursday that a possible strike against Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all”.

Despite the tensions, the commander of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, flew to Poland on Thursday morning to take part in Holocaust Remembrance Day events.

The Israeli military tweeted a video of him boarding a plane but did not immediately say when he was scheduled to return. A source in the delegation told Reuters, however, that Eizenkot would be back by nightfall.

In Israel, sirens blared for two minutes during the morning to mark the remembrance day, bringing traffic to a standstill as motorists and pedestrians stood to honor the six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Civil defence authorities issued the customary notice beforehand that in the event of a real emergency, the sirens would sound in a rising and falling, rather than a constant, tone.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by David Stamp)

Israel deploys 100 sharpshooters on Gaza border for Palestinian protests: Israeli army chief

A man hangs a Palestinian flag at an electric pole near the border with Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Jeffrey Heller and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – The Israeli military has deployed more than 100 sharpshooters on the Gaza border ahead of a planned mass Palestinian demonstration, Israel’s top general said in an interview published on Wednesday.

Organizers said they expect thousands in Gaza, including entire families, to answer their call to gather in tent cities in five locations along the sensitive border from Friday in a six-week protest for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

Citing security concerns, the Israeli military enforces a “no go” zone for Palestinians on land in Gaza adjacent to Israel’s border fence.

Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, the military’s chief of staff, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that the military would not allow “mass infiltration” or tolerate damage to the barrier during the protests.

“We have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters who were called up from all of the military’s units, primarily from the special forces,” Eizenkot said in the interview. “If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire.”

Israeli soldiers are confronted by frequent violent Palestinian protests along the Gaza border and have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against demonstrators who the military said hurled rocks or petrol bombs at them.

Organizers said the protest is supported by several Palestinian factions, including Gaza’s dominant Islamist Hamas movement, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called on all sides “to exercise restraint and take the necessary steps to avoid a violent escalation”.

In a statement emailed to Reuters, he said: “Children in particular should not be put at risk at any time by anyone.”

RISING TENSION

Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, speaking on Israel Radio, said Hamas had avoided direct conflict with Israel since the end of the 2014 Gaza war.

But he said that pressure Hamas was now feeling from Israel’s destruction of some of its network of attack tunnels near the border, coupled with harsh economic conditions in Gaza, were “a formula for rising tension”.

The start of the demonstration was symbolically linked to what Palestinians call “Land Day”, which commemorates the six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces in demonstrations in 1976 over land confiscations. The week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, when Israel heightens security, also begins on Friday.

The protest is due to end on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Palestinians have long demanded that as many as 5 million of their compatriots be granted the right to return. Israel rules this out, fearing an influx of Arabs that would eliminate its Jewish majority. Israel argues the refugees should resettle in a future state that the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

Israel puts tunnel dug under Gaza border on display to show threat

An Israeli soldier stands next to an entrance to what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim, Israel January 18, 2018

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military brought journalists on Thursday to film a 2 km (1.25 mile) tunnel dug by militants from the Gaza Strip to Israel, saying it was putting the construction on display to show the continuing threat it faces from the territory.

The Islamic Jihad militant group has claimed responsibility for building the tunnel, saying its aim was to use it to attack Israel in the next armed confrontation.

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool

Twelve Gaza militants, most of them from Islamic Jihad, were killed in the destruction of the tunnel and in rescue efforts when Israel destroyed the underground passage on October 30.

The tunnel, around the height and width of an upright person, was lined with concrete slabs. It was discovered about 120 meters inside Israel near Kissufim, about six meters below ground, as tunnelers burrowed towards the surface looking to build an exit, the Israeli military said.

“The tunnel that we see here is one of three tunnels that have been destroyed over the last two months,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said. “The threat has not passed and the terror from Hamas has not passed.”

Palestinian tunnel diggers have long operated in border areas of the Gaza Strip, using the underground passageways to bypass tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of goods and people, and to smuggle weapons.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war. It is home to two million Palestinians, who complain that the blockade has left the enclave isolated and impoverished. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, tightened after the Islamist militant group Hamas took power in Gaza more than a decade ago.

(Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israeli aircraft attack Hamas after rocket hits Israeli town

Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike, east of Gaza City

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft attacked Palestinian militant targets in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, wounding at least one person, witnesses said, after a rocket fired from the enclave hit an Israeli border town.

Israeli police said there were no casualties in the rocket strike on Sderot, but Israel has a declared policy of responding militarily to any attack from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Three Hamas training camps and a security complex were targeted in the air strikes and a passerby was hurt, witnesses said. An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

Hamas has observed a de facto ceasefire with Israel since 2014, but small jihadist cells in the Gaza Strip occasionally fire rockets across the border.

A previously unknown group, “The Grandchildren of the Followers of the Prophet” said in a statement posted on several websites that it carried out the Sderot attack in the name of “oppressed brothers and sisters” under Israeli occupation.

In Sderot, metal fragments and a small crater in a street marked the spot where the rocket exploded. The blast shattered windows in a nearby home and damaged a car.

Shortly after the attack, Israeli tank shells struck a Hamas observation post near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Local residents said there were no casualties.

Several hours later, Israeli aircraft hit the training camps, in the southern and central parts of the Gaza Strip, as well as a security complex in the north, witnesses said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri issued a statement warning Israel against continuing what he termed its aggression. “Hamas stresses it can not keep silent if the escalation continues,” he said.

Militants in the Gaza Strip last fired a rocket into Israel on Aug. 21, in an incident that also caused no casualties, and drew an Israeli air strike and tank shelling.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Israeli troops evict Jewish settlers from West Bank homes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli troops forcibly removed Jewish settlers on Friday from homes in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron that they said they had bought from Palestinians, prompting some right-wing lawmakers to threaten to withhold support for the government.

Ministers and members of parliament from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party decried Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon’s refusal to sign off on the settlers’ occupancy of the homes in a city where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians run high.

The settlers said they had bought the properties legally from Palestinian owners, but to live in the apartments they need Defence Ministry approval.

“To take occupancy of the homes, a number of actions are required, and none were carried out, which is why the trespassers were evicted,” Yaalon said in a statement.

A Netanyahu aide, who declined to be named, said that the prime minister backed Yaalon’s move, but added:

“In this case, not all the permits have been obtained. Once this happens, the settlers will be able to return, as has happened in past cases.”

Two right-wing lawmakers from Likud and another from the ultranationalist Jewish Home party said they would boycott parliamentary votes on Monday in protest at the move.

“It is forbidden to evict Jews from their homes and there will be consequences, we demand the prime minister’s involvement in the matter,” said Ayoub Kara, a Druze Arab Likud lawmaker.

TENSE CITY

Hebron, a city of about 220,000 Palestinians, has long been a source of tension, fueled by the presence of around 1,000 Jewish settlers who live in the heart of the city, protected by Israeli troops.

A holy site in the center is divided between the faiths. One half is known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives are said to be buried. The other, where the Ibrahimi mosque stands, is known to Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said Yaalon’s move was “scandalous”, while Diaspora Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin described it as “wrong”.

The settlers moved into the apartments on Thursday and were evicted on Friday morning. Television footage showed scuffles as the police forced them out. Police said about 80 settlers had been removed without major incident.

Israeli settlements in occupied territory, deemed illegal by most countries, are a fundamental issue in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israel confirmed on Thursday that it was planning to appropriate a large tract of land in the West Bank, drawing condemnation from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the United States, Israel’s closest ally.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)