Israel strikes Hamas in Gaza, calling attack response to rocket fire

A Palestinian fisherman walks on a beach in the southern Gaza Strip June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft attacked a Hamas target in Gaza on Thursday after a Palestinian rocket strike, the Israeli military said, in the first serious cross-border flare-up since a surge in fighting last month.

The latest hostilities followed Israel’s closure of offshore waters to Gaza fisherman on Wednesday in what it said was a response to incendiary balloons launched across the frontier that caused fires in fields in southern Israel this week.

In a statement, the military said fighter planes attacked “underground infrastructure” in a compound belonging to the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. There were no reports of injuries.

The military said it was responding to a rocket fired from Gaza overnight that was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In two days of heavy fighting in early May, projectiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel, local health officials said, and Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, according to Gaza health authorities.

A truce mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations ended that round of violence.

Some two million Palestinians live in Gaza, whose economy has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Trump to give Israel’s Netanyahu an election boost

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was set to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a boost for his re-election campaign on Monday as Netanyahu’s chief political opponent sought to position himself as a better alternative to lead Israel.

During a White House visit by Netanyahu, Trump was expected to sign a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Israel seized the strategic land from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

The recognition, which Trump had announced in a tweet last Thursday, appeared to be the most overt gesture by the Republican president to help Netanyahu, who had been pressing Trump for the move.

The Israeli prime minister, who faces an election on April 9, on Monday cut short his U.S. visit after a rocket fired from Gaza injured seven people near Tel Aviv. He arrived in Washington on Sunday, originally for a four-day visit.

The attack in central Israel came as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel group, held its annual meeting in Washington with speaker after speaker expressing U.S. support for strong ties with Israel.

“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday.

Pence also talked tough against Iran, saying that under Trump, “America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s strongest election challenger, Benny Gantz, appeared before the gathering on Monday, and vowed to protect Israel against threats from Iran and Syria. He called for unity in Israel.

“We must remember if that we want hope, we must have unity,” he said.

With election day approaching, opinion polls put Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck and neck.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Gaza ceasefire ends flare-up, Palestinians resume protests

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

GAZA (Reuters) – An Egyptian-brokered truce ended a two-day wave of rocket barrages and air strikes between Israel and Gaza, but the border remained tense as thousands of Gazans gathered for protests in which two Palestinians were killed and scores wounded.

After a quiet night with no rockets falling in Israel or air strikes in Gaza, residents in southern Israel, who had spent much of the past two days in rocket shelters, were told by the military they could return to their daily routines.

In Gaza, crowds of Palestinians resumed protests against Israel. Reuters TV footage showed plumes of smoke blackening the sky at one area of the border after Palestinians set tires ablaze, and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded about 240 others, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israeli military said rioters hurled stones, explosives, and firebombs at troops and the border fence. The soldiers “responded with riot dispersal means and live fire, in accordance with the standard operating procedures”, a spokeswoman said.

A tank also fired at a Hamas outpost, the military said.

Since the weekly protests began on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 159 Palestinians and a Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Still, the broader truce held on Friday after a two-day escalation during which the Hamas militant group fired scores of rockets, including a long-range missile deep into Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza.

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child were killed in the Israeli attacks, as was a Hamas militant. Seven people were wounded by Palestinian rockets and mortars that struck Israel.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a blockade on Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is home to two million Palestinians, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

A senior Egyptian official said Cairo was working to secure a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Hamas, beginning with a ceasefire and later including economic improvements.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch and Cairo newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after Egypt brokers ceasefire

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Wednesday under an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire after the most intense flareup of hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel since a 2014 war.

Militants from Hamas, the dominant group in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets and mortar bombs at Israel throughout Tuesday and overnight, to which Israel responded with tank and air strikes on more than 50 targets in the enclave.

There were no reports of further fighting after Palestinian and Israeli attacks in the early hours of Wednesday, and both sides appeared to back away from a slide toward a new war after weeks of violence along the border.

Schools opened as usual in Israeli towns near the frontier where rocket warning sirens sounded frequently on Tuesday. Gaza’s streets were filled with morning shoppers and children went to class.

A Palestinian official said Egyptian mediation led to a ceasefire, but the terms of the “understanding” did not go beyond “a restoration of calm by both sides”.

“After the resistance succeeded in confronting the (Israeli) aggression … there was a lot of mediation in the past hours,” Hamas’ deputy chief in Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, said, in a nod to Egypt’s efforts.

“An agreement was reached to return to the (2014) ceasefire understandings in the Gaza Strip. The resistance factions will abide by it as long as the Occupation does the same,” Hayya said in a statement, using militant groups’ term for Israel.

Israel stopped short of officially confirming any formal truce with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it regards along with the West as terrorist organizations.

But it launched no new attacks on Wednesday and signaled it was prepared to halt the hostilities if the cross-border barrages ended. Israeli officials declared that militants had been dealt a strong blow.

The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded by projectiles launched from Gaza. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli strikes.

“Firing has stopped since the morning and Israel conveyed a message that if it resumes, the attacks on Hamas and its associates will be even stronger,” a senior Israeli official added.

“It all depends on Hamas,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said on Israel Radio.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab, acknowledging a ceasefire was in effect, said its success would depend on “whether Israel will refrain from any military escalation against Gaza”.

Both Hamas and pro-Iran Islamic Jihad said they fired their salvoes in response to Israel’s killing of at least 116 Palestinians since March 30 in Gaza border protests.

Islamic Jihad had vowed revenge in response to Israeli tank shelling that killed of three of its men on Sunday after explosives were planted along the Gaza frontier fence.

AIR STRIKES

Violence along the Gaza frontier soared in recent weeks. At least 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations along the border, drawing international condemnation for Israel over its use of lethal force.

The demonstrations and surge in violence come amid growing frustration among Palestinians over the prospects for an independent state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

By late Tuesday, Israeli aircraft had hit 55 facilities belonging to militant groups in Gaza, including a cross-border tunnel under construction, in response to the Palestinian barrages, the military said.

Such potential targets are usually abandoned by militants when violence with Israel flares.

Israel said some 70 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza at its southland. Some were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten before it was due to open.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Israel strikes Hamas targets in Gaza after Palestinian rocket attacks

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military said it attacked a Hamas training compound in Gaza on Monday in response to rocket strikes from the Palestinian enclave, which have surged since U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Dec 6.

Neither side reported any casualties in the overnight shelling exchange, which occurred days before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Israel and neighboring Egypt, which also borders Gaza and is involved in its internal politics.

Militants in Gaza, territory controlled by the Hamas Islamist group, have launched more than a dozen rockets into southern Israel over the last two weeks, the most intensive attacks since a seven-week-long Gaza war in 2014.

Two rockets were fired late on Sunday, one of them exploding inside an Israeli border community and the other hitting an open area, the military said. Another rocket launched early on Monday fell short inside Gaza, it said.

Three structures in a Hamas training camp were hit in the Israeli counter-strike, the military said.

Hamas usually evacuates such facilities when tensions rise, and Israel’s choice of the low-profile target appeared to signal a desire to avoid more serious confrontation with the group.

“Israel does not seek escalation,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Army Radio.

But Zeev Elkin, another member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said in an interview with the radio station that Israel’s military response would “have to be harshened” if the rocket fire did not stop.

Israeli officials have blamed the fire on smaller militant groups in Gaza and called on Hamas to rein them in. Should Hamas fail to do so, both Shaked and Elkin said, Israel could eventually target the group’s leadership for attack.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by John Stonestreet)