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)

‘We will make them pay’: North Korea launches missiles, condemns U.S.-South Korea drills

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired missiles into the sea off its east coast for the fourth time in less than two weeks, South Korea said on Tuesday, as Pyongyang warned that hostile moves against it “have reached the danger line.”

The North, criticizing the U.S.-South Korean drills and their use of high-tech weapons, has fired a series of missiles and rockets since its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at a June 30 meeting to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

North Korea has said it is committed to diplomacy and it will wait until the end of the year for the United States to soften its policy of sanctions and political pressure over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But if Washington and Seoul disregard North Korea’s repeated warnings, “we will make them pay (a) heavy price,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement released through state news agency KCNA.

Trump has played down the tests by saying they did not break any agreement he had with Kim but the talks have yet to resume. Analysts believe the tests are designed both to improve North Korean military capabilities and to pressure Washington to offer more concessions.

“Part of what’s happening now is that North Korea is expressing frustrations with a general lack of progress on inter-Korean agenda while increasing leverage in U.S.-North Korea negotiations by demonstrating how its programs could and will continue to advance,” said Jenny Town, managing editor at 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea.

MULTIPLE MISSILE LAUNCHES

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles were fired from near Kwail on North Korea’s west coast, about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Pyongyang, in South Hwanghae province early on Tuesday. They were the fourth set of launches since July 25.

The missiles flew about 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 37 km (23 miles), the JCS said. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies deemed they had similar flight characteristics to the short-range ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on July 25, it said.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the latest launch area was significant because the flight path of 450 km meant that all of South Korea was in range of such missiles.

“It becomes difficult to detect the origin of the launch in advance because it is capable of launching a missile from most anywhere in North Korea, targeting all of South Korea,” he said.

South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday the missile launch went against the spirit of easing tension on the Korean peninsula.

A United Nations report said on Monday Pyongyang has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs and used cyberattacks to take in $2 billion to fund the development.

The missile tests represent military advances, as well as help Kim strengthen his bargaining power with the United States, said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official focused on Korea.

“Kim believes he doesn’t need to compromise to get what he wants, doesn’t need to conduct serious negotiations at the working level because he has recourse to Trump, and doesn’t need to restrain any of his missile testing or actions abroad as long as he doesn’t test an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Jackson said.

‘DO US HARM’

The launches on July 25 were the first since Trump and Kim met at the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on June 30. What was agreed at that meeting is now under scrutiny.

The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said that the North remained committed to resolving issues through dialogue, but that the United States and South Korea’s joint military drills violate a pledge made by Trump to Kim.

Pyongyang “will be compelled to seek a new road as we have already indicated” if South Korea and the United States continue with hostile military moves, he said.

The arrival of new, U.S.-made F-35A stealth fighters in South Korea, the visit of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine to a South Korean port, and U.S. tests of ballistic missiles are among the steps that have forced North Korea to continue its own weapons development, the spokesman said.

“The U.S. and South Korean authorities remain outwardly talkative about dialogue,” he said. “But when they sit back, they sharpen a sword to do us harm.”

South Korean media reported that U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises had started on Monday. A senior South Korean official said previously the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.

A JCS spokesman told a regular news briefing on Monday the allies were preparing for a joint exercise in the second half of the year but would not confirm the name of the drill or whether it had already started.

The testing of short-range missiles by North Korea is banned by a 2006 United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent threat to Japanese security from the latest projectile launch by North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Israeli warplanes strike Gaza after rockets fired toward Tel Aviv

Israeli soldiers are seen on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the border between Israel and Gaza on its Israeli side, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza early on Friday after Israel’s military said militants had fired two rockets toward the city of Tel Aviv.

The air strikes, the heaviest in five months, hit about 100 military targets belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, the military said. These included a rocket manufacturing site, a naval post and weapons facility, and a Hamas headquarters, it said.

Palestinian news media reported strikes throughout the densely populated coastal strip that is home to two million Palestinians. Four people were wounded, health ministry officials said.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of firing rockets from Gaza toward Tel Aviv – the first time the seaside city had been targeted since the 2014 Gaza War.

But Hamas denied responsibility and Israeli media, including Ha’aretz and Channel 7 News, later carried reports that the rockets might have been fired from Gaza by mistake.

A security official briefed on the situation, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters the launch was “the result of an error – that an attack on Israel was not intended. Israel holds Hamas responsible, hence the response”.

The exchange was the most serious since a botched Israeli commando incursion into Gaza last November.

In the aftermath of that episode, dozens of Israeli air strikes killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, and destroyed several buildings. Rocket attacks from Gaza sent residents of southern Israel to shelters, wounding dozens and killing a Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank.

SIRENS WAIL

The first rocket attack came on Thursday evening, with warning sirens sounding in the Tel Aviv area and residents hearing explosions.

The Israeli military said two longer-range rockets had been fired from Gaza but caused no casualties or damage. The Israelis retaliated in the early hours of Friday.

Just after dawn, six more missiles were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border towns but all but one were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the military said.

Calm was restored by mid-morning as an Egyptian delegation mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions, a Palestinian official said.

The incident immediately played into the campaign for an election in Israel on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his security credentials.

His right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, demanded that Israel resume its killings of Hamas chiefs.

“The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all,” he said on Thursday night.

Netanyahu also faced pressure from his center-left opponent, former General Benny Gantz, who said: “Only aggressive, harsh action will restore the deterrence that has eroded” under the prime minister’s watch.

Tensions have been high for the past year along the Israel-Gaza frontier, but on Friday morning Palestinian officials canceled the weekly border protests.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations that began a year ago and about 60 more have been killed in other incidents, including exchanges of fire across the border. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by Palestinian fire.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the packed, narrow enclave in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Frustration is growing in Gaza over the dim prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have expanded.

The 2014 Gaza War was the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during that war, most of them civilians, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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)

Hamas says indirect Gaza truce talks with Israel ‘advanced’

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

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NEW DAY”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)

U.N. says Syrian forces killed 85 civilians in besieged zone

A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 6, 2018.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and their allies have killed at least 85 civilians since Dec. 31 in stepped-up attacks against the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the U.N. human rights chief said on Wednesday.

Conditions in the enclave, the last major rebel-held zone near Damascus and where at least 390,000 civilians have been besieged for four years, amount to a humanitarian catastrophe, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“Residential areas are being hit day and night by strikes from the ground and from the air, forcing civilians to hide in basements,” he said in a statement.

Zeid said warring parties were obliged by law to distinguish between civilians and lawful military targets, and reports from Eastern Ghouta suggested of the attackers were flouting those principles, “raising concerns that war crimes may have been committed.”

Among the dead civilians were 21 women and 30 children, Zeid said.

Backed by Russian strikes, Syrian government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months. Russia rejects accusations that its jets have been targeting civilians.

Zeid said failure to evacuate urgent medical cases from the enclave was also against international humanitarian law.

Armed opposition groups holed up in Eastern Ghouta had also continued to fire rockets into residential areas of Damascus, which he said caused terror among the population.

A rocket landed near a bakery in Old Damascus on Jan. 4, killing a woman and injuring 13 other civilians, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and John Stonestreet)

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)

Israel closes Gaza border crossings after Palestinian rocket strikes

Israel closes Gaza border crossings after Palestinian rocket strikes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel announced the closure of its Gaza border crossings on Thursday in response to daily rocket fire from the enclave over the past week after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital stoked Palestinian anger.

Israeli aircraft struck three facilities belonging to Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, before dawn on Thursday after the latest rocket attacks, Israel’s military said.

It said it targeted training camps and weapons storage compounds. Hamas usually evacuates such facilities when border tensions spike.

Two of the rockets fired by militants were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system and a third exploded in an open area. There were no reports of casualties on either side of the frontier.

The military said in a statement that “due to the security events and in accordance with security assessments” Kerem Shalom crossing – the main passage point for goods entering the Gaza Strip, and the Erez pedestrian crossing – would be shut as of Thursday. It did not say how long the closure would last.

Some 15 rockets have been fired into southern Israel since Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement, and none of the projectiles has caused serious injury or damage.

The attacks have drawn Israeli air strikes that have killed two Hamas gunmen. Two other Palestinians have been killed in confrontations with Israeli troops during stone-throwing protests along the border.

Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Israel Radio that while Hamas, which last fought a war with Israel in 2014, was not carrying out the rocket strikes, it needed to rein in militants from “breakaway groups” or it would “find itself in a situation where it has to contend” with the Israeli military.

In Istanbul on Wednesday, a summit of more than 50 Muslim countries condemned Trump’s move and called on the world to respond by recognizing East Jerusalem, captured by Israel along with the West Bank in a 1967 war, as the capital of Palestine.

Trump’s declaration has been applauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a recognition of political reality and Jews’s biblical links to Jerusalem, a city that is also holy to Muslims and Christians.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Palestinian stabs Israeli in Jerusalem; anti-Trump protest flares in Beirut

A Palestinian demonstrator shouts during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 11, 2017.

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard at Jerusalem’s main bus station on Sunday, police said, and violence flared near the U.S. Embassy in Beirut over U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Four days of street protests in the Palestinian territories over Trump’s announcement on Wednesday have largely died down, but his overturning of long-standing U.S. policy on Jerusalem — a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians — drew more Arab warnings of potential damage to prospects for Middle East peace.

“Our hope is that everything is calming down and that we are returning to a path of normal life without riots and without violence,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Army Radio.

But in Jerusalem, a security guard was in critical condition after a 24-year-old Palestinian man from the occupied West Bank stabbed him after approaching a metal detector at an entrance to the city’s central bus station, police said. The alleged assailant was taken into custody after a passer-by tackled him.

In public remarks on Sunday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a frequent critic of Israel, called it an “invader state” and a “terror state”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who spoke at a news conference in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron after the two leaders met, fired back:

“I’m not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villages in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people,” Netanyahu said.

Macron told Netanyahu that he needed to make gestures to the Palestinians to break the impasse between the two sides.

“I asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to make some courageous gestures towards the Palestinians to get out of the current impasse,” Macron said, suggesting that a freeze of construction in settlements could be a first step.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory and say the status of the city should be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks. Israel says that all of Jerusalem is its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The Trump administration has said it is still committed to reviving Palestinian-Israeli talks that collapsed in 2014, but jettisoning old policies is necessary to break the deadlock.

Washington says it has not taken a position on Jerusalem’s final status or borders, but it is sensible to recognize that any future peace deal will have Israel’s capital in the city.

The United States was “as committed to the peace process as we’ve ever been”, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday. Trump “didn’t talk about boundaries, he didn’t talk about borders… Because the final status of Jerusalem is between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s not for the Americans to decide.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region, Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said on Saturday. The White House said on Sunday that decision was unfortunate and Pence looked forward to seeing Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region,” said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence.

Netanyahu reacted to critics in a statement before talks with Macron, to be followed by a meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

“I hear (from Europe) voices of condemnation over President Trump’s historic announcement, but I have not heard any condemnation for the rocket firing against Israel that has come (after the announcement) and the awful incitement against us,” Netanyahu said.

A Palestinian protester throws back a gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

DEMONSTRATIONS

In Beirut, Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, some of them waving Palestinian flags, near the U.S. Embassy.

Demonstrators set fires in the street, torched U.S. and Israeli flags and threw projectiles towards security forces that had barricaded the main road to the complex.

In the Moroccan capital, Rabat, tens of thousands of protesters marched down the city’s main thoroughfare chanting slogans including, “The people want to liberate Palestine” and “Death to Israel, enemy of the people and provoker of wars.”

Waving Palestinian flags and holding up pictures of Jerusalem, they expressed anger at the “betrayal” by Arab governments perceived to have backed Trump’s move.

In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, thousands protested outside the U.S. embassy, many waving banners saying “Palestine is in our hearts”.

Maliki has said the Palestinians will be looking for a new peace talks broker instead of the United States and would seek a United Nations Security Council resolution over Trump’s decision.

Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo on Saturday urged the United States to abandon its decision on Jerusalem and said the move would spur violence throughout the region.

Echoing that view, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. move “could throw a lifebuoy to terrorist and armed groups, which have begun to lose ground” in the Middle East.

GAZA TUNNEL

Along Israel’s tense frontier with the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military on Sunday destroyed what it described as a “significant” cross-border attack tunnel dug by the enclave’s dominant Islamist group, Hamas.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas on the demolition, which came as Palestinian factions tried to meet Sunday’s deadline for an Egyptian-mediated handover of Gaza by Hamas to Western-backed President Abbas after a decade’s schism.

Pre-dawn Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday killed two Palestinian gunmen after militants fired rockets from the area into Israel on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, John Irish in Paris, Tom Perry in Beirut, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Jeff Mason in West Palm Beach, Florida; Editing by Peter Graff and Mary Milliken)

Mattis arrives in Afghanistan as rockets hit Kabul airport

Mattis arrives in Afghanistan as rockets hit Kabul airport

By James Mackenzie and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Kabul on Wednesday to pledge support for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, with the precarious security in the Afghan capital underlined by a rocket attack on the airport hours after he touched down.

Arriving from India, where he sought support for the U.S. administration’s new South Asia security plan, Mattis said the United States was determined not to allow “a merciless enemy to kill its way to power”.

Promising a more “holistic” approach without fixed timetables and involving other countries in the region, including Pakistan, he said the Taliban would have to learn they could not defeat the government.

“I want to reinforce to the Taliban that the only path to peace and political legitimacy for them is through a negotiated settlement,” Mattis told a joint news conference with Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

The visit comes after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, promising a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents who have gained ground as they seek to reestablish Islamic law after their 2001 ouster.

But a rocket attack on Kabul airport that injured five civilians and was claimed by both Islamic State and Taliban insurgents highlighted the rebels’ ability to strike the Western-backed government.

Fighters holed up in a nearby building continued to resist security forces for hours, a spokesman for the interior minister said.

Mattis condemned the attack as a “criminal act by terrorists”, adding that it was a “classic definition of what the Taliban are up to here now”.

There are now about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of the 13,500-strong NATO-led Resolute Support mission advising and training Afghan forces as well as a separate counterterrorism mission, targeting Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

As part of the new strategy, which will give U.S. commanders greater freedom to use American firepower against the Taliban, Mattis has said the United States will send an additional 3,000 troops to help train Afghan security forces.

It will also make greater use of its air power to support Afghan forces and strike the Taliban, a strategy that carries the risk of an increase in civilian casualties.

“I don’t want to tell the enemy exactly what we are doing but the whole point is to make certain we have a compelling battlefield advantage over anything the Taliban tries to mass against your forces,” he said.

Mattis said U.S. forces would do “everything humanly possible” to limit civilian casualties, which fueled bitter disputes between Washington and the government of former President Hamid Karzai.

Trump has said he expects NATO allies to step up contributions of both troops and funding to the Afghanistan mission, and Stoltenberg said the credibility of the international alliance depended on maintaining its support.

“We know the cost of staying in Afghanistan,” he said. “But the cost of leaving would be higher. If NATO forces leave too soon, there is a risk Afghanistan may return to a state of chaos and once again become a safe haven for international terrorism.”

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Editing by Nick Macfie)