Netanyahu meets Omani foreign minister , hints other Arab states warming to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem February 10, 2019. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS

WARSAW (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Oman’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Warsaw on Wednesday and hinted that other Arab countries represented there were engaging with Israel.

“Many are following this (Omani) lead, and may I say, including at this conference,” a video released by Netanyahu’s office showed him telling Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whose Gulf state hosted the Israeli leader in October.

Oman does not formally recognize Israel. Nor do Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which share Israel’s concerns about Iranian actions in the region and also sent envoys to Warsaw.

Speaking to Netanyahu, bin Alawi said: “People in the Middle East have suffered a lot because they have stuck to the past. Now we say, this is a new era, for the future.”

The United States hopes the Warsaw gathering will ratchet up pressure against Iran despite concerns among major European countries about heightened tensions with Tehran.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Palestinians warm to Netanyahu rival, citing signs of compromise

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and head of Israel Resilience party, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell and Dan Williams

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinians warmed on Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival, a former top general who said Israel should not maintain its dominion over them.

With both a general election and the unveiling of a U.S. peace initiative on the horizon, the centrist candidate, Benny Gantz, has been signaling an openness to territorial compromise in the occupied West Bank. That marks a contrast with the right-wing Netanyahu, who has ruled out withdrawing settlements.

The secret U.S. proposal for breaking a five-year diplomatic deadlock is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9 ballot. Pollsters see Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party winning around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term.

In an interview on Wednesday with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Gantz was asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people,” Gantz said.

Gantz, whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Netanyahu’s Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, has said he wanted to strengthen settlement blocs in the West Bank.

But he has not mentioned what might happen in any future peace deal to isolated settlements that are not incorporated into Israel if Palestinians are given a separate state.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, praised “the signs coming from Gantz about settlements”, calling them a step in the right direction should he win the election and prove “willing and ready” for peace.

“It’s encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Abu Rudeineh told Reuters.

Most world powers consider Israeli settlements on land captured in a 1967 war to be illegal under the Geneva conventions. Israel disputes this, citing historical ties to the land, and has expanded the settlement population steadily, including during the past decade under Netanyahu.

Palestinians say settlements must be removed from their future state in any final agreement, although some could be ceded to Israel as part of an agreed swap for other land. The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements, and Abbas is boycotting the Trump administration, accusing it of being biased toward Israel.

In a statement, Likud said Gantz was planning to form a “leftist government” sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Gantz’ Resilience party said “no unilateral decision will be made on settlement evacuation” and that he would “maintain … non-negotiable security protections”.

Netanyahu cites the example of Gaza — where Israel unilaterally pulled out its settlements in 2005 and the Islamist group Hamas soon took control — as proof that removing settlements from the West Bank would be dangerous.

Gantz described the Gaza withdrawal as well executed, telling Yedioth: “We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere.”

The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both may need to compromise.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran warns Israel against further air strikes in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran?s Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/File Photo

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Iran warned Israel on Tuesday of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, where Tehran has backed President Bashar al-Assad and his forces in their nearly eight-year war against rebels and militants.

Without responding directly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless said it was important to block Iranian influence in Syria.

Israel, which views Tehran as its biggest security threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets and those of allied militia in Syria. With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

In a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were unacceptable.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he would hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 21, focussing on Iran’s threat along the Syrian border.

Moscow is a main backer of the Damascus government.

“It’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria. In many ways we blocked that advance. But we are committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and Netanyahu has said attacks will continue.

Syria’s Moualem was quoted on Tuesday by a Hezbollah-run media unit as saying: “The Syrian government considers it to be its duty to keep Iranian security forces in Syrian territory.”

Iran has also repeatedly said it will keep forces there.

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 about the situation in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

Brazil moving its embassy to Jerusalem matter of ‘when, not if’: Netanyahu

Birds fly on a foggy day near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, Jerusalem, January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Gabriel Stargardter

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro told him that it was a matter of “when, not if” he moves his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

The far-right Bolsonaro, who takes office on Tuesday and is hosting Netanyahu and the leaders of other countries for his inauguration, has said he would like to follow the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump and move the embassy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro are seen in a synagogue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 28, 2018. Leo Correa/Pool via REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro are seen in a synagogue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 28, 2018. Leo Correa/Pool via REUTERS

But he has come under intense pressure from Brazil’s powerful agriculture sector not to do so, as it could hurt Brazilian exports to Arab nations. Despite Netanyahu’s comments, a senior official from Brazil’s incoming government told Reuters on Sunday no decision had yet been made on the issue.

Such a move by Bolsonaro would be a sharp shift in Brazilian foreign policy, which has traditionally backed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Arab League had told Bolsonaro that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a setback for relations with Arab countries, according to a letter seen by Reuters earlier in December.

“Bolsonaro told me it was ‘when, not if’ he moves the embassy to Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said on Sunday during a meeting with leaders of Brazil’s Jewish community in Rio de Janeiro.

“We attach enormous importance to Brazil, and Brazil in the context of Latin America,” he added. “This heralds a historic change.”

Netanyahu, who met with Bolsonaro on Friday, said that the Brazilian accepted his invitation to visit Israel, a trip that is likely to take place in March.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil.

After he met the Israeli leader, Bolsonaro said that “we need good allies, good friends, good brothers, like Benjamin Netanyahu.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Brad Brooks and Phil Berlowitz)

Israeli defense minister quits over Gaza truce in blow to Netanyahu

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the media following his party, Yisrael Beitenu, faction meting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday in protest at a Gaza ceasefire that he called a “capitulation to terror”, weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government.

“Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman told reporters, referring to Israelis subjected to a surge in Palestinian rocket attacks before Tuesday’s truce took hold.

Lieberman said his resignation, which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu, also withdraws his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition.

Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio himself, his party said. The loss of Israel Beitenu’s five seats will leave him with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, a year before Israel’s next election.

Political commentators had speculated that Netanyahu, who has high approval ratings despite being dogged by multiple corruption investigations, might bring forward the ballot.

They also saw in Lieberman’s decision to quit a bid to poach votes from Netanyahu and far-right cabinet rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, ahead of an election.

Netanyahu’s Likud played down the option of an early poll.

“There is no need to go to an election during what is a sensitive period for national security. This government can see out its days,” party spokesman Jonatan Urich said on Twitter.

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

CRACKS IN COALITION

The cracks in the coalition could soon widen, however.

In Jewish Home, which has eight lawmakers, there were calls for Bennett, now education minister, to succeed Lieberman as defense chief.

Bennett did not immediately comment. Were he to withdraw from the ruling coalition, a snap election would be inevitable. But as defense minister, he could be no less a thorn in Netanyahu’s side than Lieberman.

Lieberman and Bennett have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, even as the government authorized a Qatari cash infusion to the impoverished enclave last week and limited itself to air strikes rather than a wider campaign during this week’s fighting.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

Violence persisted on lower scale on Wednesday, with Palestinians saying a Gaza fisherman was shot dead by Israeli forces. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the troops across the border identified a suspect approaching the Gaza fence and opened fire at him.

In a separate incident, the military said troops captured a Palestinian who tried to cut through the fence and threw grenades at them.

Netanyahu cast Israel’s handling of Gaza as prudence.

“Leadership also means standing up to criticism when you know things that are classified and which you cannot share with the public that you love,” he said in a speech. “Our enemies begged for a ceasefire, and they know well why.”

Hamas saw victory in the Lieberman’s departure. On Gaza City streets, Palestinian burned Lieberman’s photo and some motorists handed out candies to passersby in celebration.

“Lieberman’s resignation is a recognition of the defeat before the growing force of the Palestinian resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “It also showed a state of weakness that has overcome the Israelis.”

Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman established an electoral base among fellow Russian-speaking immigrants. He also counts among his supporters other Israeli Jews who share his suspicions of Israel’s Arab minority or oppose the religious authority and political clout of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Peter Graff, Richard Balmforth)

Jordan says nearly 300 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ leave for West

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday.

In July the rescue workers who had been operating in rebel-held areas fled advancing Russian-backed Syrian government troops and slipped over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders and that there had been fears that the rescue workers’ lives were at risk.

Jordan had accepted them on humanitarian grounds after getting written guarantees they would be given asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain, Jordanian officials said.

The “White Helmets”, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s civil war.

Its members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25, near the end of a three-month period the authorities had given them to stay.

Another group’s departure would be delayed for two weeks until mid-November as there were new-born babies and people receiving medical treatment among them, al-Qatarneh told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)

Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli city draws Gaza air strikes

Israeli sappers work on a house that the Israeli military said was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Beersheba, southern Israel October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the largest city in southern Israel early on Wednesday, prompting Israeli air strikes that killed a militant in the Palestinian enclave.

Egypt, which sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday’s surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

The rocket hit a two-story house in Beersheba before dawn, the Israeli military said. It gutted most of the home, blowing out concrete walls and its stone facade, showering its yard and an adjacent street with rubble.

The family living there managed to take shelter in a reinforced room after alert sirens sounded, said officials in the city about 40 km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

Another rocket launched from Gaza and aimed at central Israel fell into the Mediterranean Sea, the military said.

After the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with his defense minister and top generals at military headquarters near the Gaza border, which has seen more than six months of sometimes violent Palestinian protests.

Netanyahu said that in a statement that unless attacks from Gaza ceased, “Israel will act with great force” to stop them.

With a nod to the Egyptian talks, Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and other major militant groups took the unusual step of denying responsibility for Wednesday’s launchings, saying they rejected “all irresponsible attempts to sabotage the Egyptian effort, including the firing of the rockets”.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any of the other smaller groups that operate in Gaza, and by mid-afternoon the area was quiet.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio there was evidence to back up the Hamas statement. But he said Israeli policy dictated an “immediate and forceful retaliation” against Hamas because the groups controls Gaza.

The European Union, in a statement from Brussels, said indiscriminate attacks against civilians were completely unacceptable and mortar and rocket fire by Palestinian militants must stop immediately.

EXPLOSIONS

Israel’s military said it struck armed training camps in Gaza and also targeted a squad about to launch a rocket.

Health officials in Gaza said a 25-year-old Palestinian man, identified by Al-Mujahedeen Brigades, a small militant faction, as one of its members, was killed. Five other Palestinians were wounded in separate attacks.

Many people in Gaza awoke to the sounds of explosions. Families crowded into a nearby hospital where the dead man’s mother collapsed over his body.

Pillars of smoke rose from the sites bombed by Israel, including a port Hamas is constructing in the southern Gaza Strip and a naval police position.

Cairo has been holding talks with Hamas on a truce with Israel and ways to end 11 years of division with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in the occupied West Bank. A Palestinian source said Egyptian officials in Gaza have been in touch with Israel to try to avoid further escalation.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in JerusalemWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

Hamas fires rockets, Israel bombs Gaza amid talk of truce

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas site that was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon

GAZA/SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday armed factions in Gaza were prepared to halt a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel if the Israeli military stopped its strikes after two days of cross-border violence.

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, and a militant from the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.

The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel. One was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.

The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of an imminent end to the current fighting.

“Factions of the resistance consider this round of escalation over as far as we are concerned, and the continuation of calm depends on the behavior of the occupation,” the official said, using militant factions’ term for Israel.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the official’s remarks.

The official, at a command center used by armed groups in Gaza, said they had been “responding to crimes” by Israel – a reference to the killing on Tuesday, in disputed circumstances, of two Hamas gunmen.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

The latest fighting has stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio before the Palestinian officials comments that Israel was “not eager for war” but would make no concessions to Hamas.

An Israeli policeman walks next to the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was due to hold a security cabinet meeting later in the day after consultations with security officials.

Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 180 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.

Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck more than 150 facilities belonging to Hamas.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel.”

The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.

Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, the latest in 2014.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Netanyahu to Putin: remove Iran from Syria, Assad safe from Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 11, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia on Wednesday that Israel does not intend to threaten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and asked Moscow to work to remove Iranian forces from Syria, an Israeli official said.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the official, who requested anonymity, quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin during a meeting in Moscow.

Russia was already working to distance Iranian forces from areas of Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and had proposed that they be kept 80 km (50 miles) away but this fell short of Israel’s demand for a full exit, the official said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)