COVID and conflict: Gaza’s hospitals strained on two fronts

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza’s hospitals were already struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic before the conflict with Israel erupted last week. Now, medics say, they are being stretched further.

“The Ministry of Health is fighting on two fronts in the Gaza Strip – the coronavirus front and the other front, which is more difficult, is the injuries and the wounded,” said Marwan Abu Sada, the director of surgery in Gaza’s main Shifa hospital.

More than a week into fighting, with Palestinians pounded night and day by airstrikes and Israelis racing for refuge from rockets as sirens wail, Gaza’s doctors are battling to keep pace.

At Shifa, the biggest health facility among the 13 hospitals and 54 clinics serving the crowded enclave’s 2 million people, the number of intensive care beds has been doubled to 32 as the toll of those wounded from the conflict mounts.

Like the rest of the system, the 750-bed hospital faced shortages of medicines and equipment before fighting erupted on May 10 – blamed by medics on a blockade led by Israel and backed by Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza. Israel says its measures aim to stop arms reaching militants. “The list of essential medications and medical disposables suffered an acute shortage,” Abu Sada said.

It’s not just medicines in short supply. Fuel for generators that power Gaza’s hospitals – with main’s power too intermittent to be relied on – is also running out.

Israel says its blockade does not aim to stop medicines or other humanitarian supplies, and any shortages are the result of actions by Hamas, the Islamist group that has run Gaza since 2007, when the blockade was imposed.

“Hamas constructed a network of underground terror tunnels in Gaza underneath the homes of Palestinians, using funds meant for their health & welfare to expand Hamas’ terror machine instead,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Twitter Monday.

Hamas has rejected the accusation.

Palestinians say 201 people have been killed in Gaza since the fighting started, with hundreds more hurt, including those wounded by shrapnel or injured by collapsing buildings.

Israel has reported 10 dead in the rocket salvoes, with many more injured, some directly by the blasts and others when dashing to safety. Some are in a critical condition.

“We have a very bad time over here,” said Racheli Malka, an Israeli living in Ashkelon, a city north of Gaza repeatedly hit by rockets. “I hope it will finish fast.”

Nearby, Israelis celebrated the Jewish festival of Shavuot in a synagogue that had a hole caused by a rocket strike.

The Israeli military said Hamas – regarded by Israel, the United States and European Union as a terrorist group – and others militants had fired about 3,150 rockets in the past week.

‘OLD EQUIPMENT, OLD BUILDINGS’

Sacha Bootsma, the head of the World Health Organization in Gaza, said COVID-19 had strained the enclave’s struggling system.

“Before COVID, the health system could be categorized as fragile because it has very old equipment, old buildings, a shortage of properly trained health staff and, of course, a chronic shortage of essential medicines,” she said.

Gaza has reported about 106,000 cases of COVID-19, or about 5.3% of the population, with 986 deaths, health official say.

While Israel has rolled out one of the fastest vaccination programs in the world, fully inoculating about 55% of its 9.3 million people, Gaza received about 110,000 doses, or enough for 55,000 people, health officials say, to be distributed among one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

One ward at Shifa, still marked “Corona Isolation Department”, has had to be turned into an intensive care unit for those injured in the conflict.

“We require more urgent support from international and relief institutions,” said Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesman for the ministry of health, calling for medicines and ambulances.

For those living near Shifa hospital, the sound of ambulances wears on their already shattered nerves. “As long as we hear sirens we know it is not over yet,” said Karam Badr, 57.

Yet, healthcare workers keep the creaking medical facilities going. WHO’s Bootsma said scarce resources were still reaching those most in need.

“The resilience of the health system is remarkable,” she said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Additional reporting by Eli Berlzon in Ashkelon; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alex Richardson)

No normal life for Israelis in range of Gaza rockets

By Amir Cohen and Ari Rabinovitch

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – Sirens wail, radio broadcasts are interrupted, cellphones beep with Red Alerts every few seconds, and warning messages flash up on TV. When you hear them, rush for cover.

This has become the routine across large areas of central and southern Israel, from small towns bordering Gaza to metropolitan Tel Aviv and southern Beersheva.

More than 2,000 rockets have been launched by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups into Israel this week alone, amid the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

It’s not a routine you can ever get used to, said Lior Dabush from the coastal city of Ashkelon, about 12 km (7 miles) north of Gaza.

“We rarely leave the house,” Dabush, 37, said from her apartment’s ‘safe’ room – a mandatory feature for all new homes in Israel – where she now sleeps with her two children.

“We take short showers and we don’t venture far from home,” she told Reuters. “At times my eight-year-old son does not want to leave the safe room.”

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the latest round of rocket attacks on Monday, after widespread Palestinian anger at threatened evictions of families from East Jerusalem, and Israeli police clashes with worshippers near Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

The threat of rockets even penetrated as far as Jerusalem, when impacts in villages on the outskirts set off sirens in the centre of the city, forcing Israelis taking part in an annual holiday to flee for cover, some running under the medieval battlements of the Jaffa Gate entrance to the walled Old City.

‘DAMAGED FOR LIFE’

On the other side of the Gaza border, Palestinian civilians also find themselves trapped between the militant groups firing the rockets and the Israeli military, which has spent days bombarding Gaza with hundreds of aerial and artillery shells.

Residents of north Gaza have fled their homes to take shelter in U.N.-run schools and Palestinian officials say at least 124 people there have been killed, including 31 children.

The rockets have killed eight people in Israel, including a five-year-old who was struck by shrapnel that managed to pierce the shielding of his reinforced ‘safe’ room.

That attack happened in the border town of Sderot, where it’s a matter of seconds between siren and impact, and the streets are largely empty of pedestrians.

Idit Botera, mother of a one-year-old child, said her sixth-floor apartment was damaged in the same barrage on Wednesday.

“We still haven’t processed what happened, our blood is boiling,” she said shortly after the strike. “These are kids who are being damaged for life and it doesn’t make sense.”

The impact on children – and the effect it will have on them later in life – is a common theme for Israelis living near Gaza, for whom rockets are an unwelcome but unavoidable fact of life.

In Netiv Haasara, a small Israeli community just north of the barrier that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, tour guide Raz Shmilovitch, 45, reflected earlier this week on the toll the latest hostilities were taking.

“My family is not here now, I have taken them to a more remote safe place in which they will be safer to stay,” he said.

“In the longer run, once the war is over we are going to have to deal with the consequences of raising post-traumatic kids,” he told Reuters.

“If you have been living all your life as a kid under the threat of rockets being launched and being landed in your back yard, and you have between five to seven seconds from alarm to impact and that is the reality you are used to, that messes with your brain.”

(Reporting by Ran Tzabari, Amir Cohen, Baz Ratner and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Ten rockets land at Iraqi air base hosting U.S. forces

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Ten rockets landed on Wednesday at Iraq’s Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces, the Iraqi military said.

There were no reports of injuries among U.S. service personnel but an American civilian contractor died after suffering a “cardiac episode” while sheltering from the rockets, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage,” Kirby added. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Last Thursday, U.S. forces carried out air strikes against facilities at a border control point in Syria used by Iranian-backed militias including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

A Baghdad Operations Command official said Wednesday’s attack had been launched from a location about eight km (five miles) from the base, which is in the westerly Anbar province.

Another Iraqi security source and a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the rockets had been launched from a point west of the nearby town of Baghdadi.

Despite a deterioration in security in some parts of the country, Pope Francis is due to begin a four-day visit to Iraq on Friday.

On Feb. 16, a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in northern Iraq killed a civilian contractor and injured a U.S. service member.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; additional reporting by Kamal Namaa and Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in in Washington; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Analysis: South Korea sees hope and threat in mixed message from North’s Kim

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials have seized on conciliatory comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the weekend as a sign that tension could be easing but also worry the huge number of rockets he showcased is evidence that peace may be elusive.

Kim sent mixed signals as he addressed an unprecedented night-time military parade early on Saturday, wishing the neighboring Koreas would “hold hands” again after the novel coronavirus pandemic is over.

While much of the world was captivated by the appearance of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), officials in South Korea were far more concerned by the display of new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fast, maneuverable short-range missiles that would be ideal for striking targets in the South.

“The parade revealed not only an advanced ICBM but also MLRS that pose a direct threat to South Korea,” said South Korean opposition leader Kim Chong-in.

“They’ve not changed, their threats have grown even bigger.”

South Korean ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon said he took hope from Kim’s overture to the South as a “positive sign” but worried about what the display of new weapons said about North Korea’s intentions.

“North Korea showed advanced weapons including a new ICBM, which indicated it has not abandoned its resolve to develop weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons can threaten peace on the Korean peninsula,” Lee told a party meeting.

November’s U.S. election is compounding the uncertainty especially as the tone of ties between the two Koreas is often set by the state of North Korea’s relations with its old enemy the United States.

When a landmark summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 brought an unprecedented easing of tension between those two countries, North Korea’s dealings with South Korea also saw a remarkable thaw.

But relations on the peninsula have been tense since a second summit between Kim and Trump collapsed last year, and they took another blow last month when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official detained at sea.

‘CROCODILE TEARS’

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said despite Kim’s conciliatory comments towards South Korea, his main message on Saturday was aimed at the United States.

“By showing a new ICBM, the North suggested they can test it any time if things don’t go well after the election. Inter-Korean ties don’t count to them,” Shin said.

The South Korean government said Kim’s speech would foster better ties but it urged North Korea to stick to agreements preventing armed clashes and accept a request for a joint investigation into the shooting of the fisheries official.

South Korean opposition leader Kim derided a teary display by Kim as he spoke of the sacrifices made by North Korea’s armed forces.

“It was appalling to see him shed crocodile tears after shooting our citizen to death,” he said.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo, pointing to North Korea’s extensive testing of MLRS and short-range missiles over the past year, while sticking to a moratorium on ICBM testing, said South Korea must not get carried away by hope for peace.

“All the media attention is on North Korea’s new strategic weapons but the most serious threat to our security is solid-fuel, short-range tactical missiles and MLRS that they’ve been madly testing over the past year,” Chun said.

“North Korea showed how it has focused on developing its capability to attack the South while our people have been absorbed in a peace campaign,” he said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

Rockets land near Baghdad airport after week of anti-U.S. attacks

GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters) – Three rockets landed in the vicinity of Baghdad airport near a military base in the complex that houses U.S. forces, the Iraqi military said, after one of the busiest weeks of attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq for months.

The incident caused no casualties, the military said.

It followed at least five attacks directed at U.S. interests in Iraq this week, including four blasts against convoys carrying supplies to bases housing U.S. forces, a rocket attack on an air base north of Baghdad and a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in the capital.

Washington blames such attacks on Iranian-backed militia groups. Iran has not directly commented on the incidents but little-known groups believed to be connected to Iran-aligned militias have claimed some attacks.

Friday’s attack took place as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi prepares to travel to the United States for talks about Iraq’s future strategic relationship with Washington.

It also comes after Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two regional opponents of Iran, announced they would normalize diplomatic ties, a move that some commentators say provides a fresh challenge to Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Iraq, where U.S.-Iran tensions have often spilled over into violence, seeks to avoid being drawn into any regional conflagration.

The Middle East came close to a full conflict in January after a U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport.

Iran-aligned militias have sworn to avenge their deaths.

The militias see Kadhimi as having firmly sided with the United States since he took office in May, after he ordered an arrest raid against one powerful Iran-aligned group and has indicated he wants to rein in the paramilitaries.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Chris Reese and Angus MacSwan)

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)