Israel Strikes Gaza as Netanyahu Says Fighting May Continue
sraeli airstrikes killed three Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, raising the death toll to 18, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that attacks will continue “as necessary.”
The Israeli air force fired on two squads of militants preparing to fire rockets today, the army said in e-mailed statements. In the first strike, a member of the militant Popular Resistance Committees and a 13-year-old boy were killed, Gaza health official Adham Abu Selmeya told reporters. The second killed the watchman at an orange grove, he said.
The fighting, which began on March 9, has been the worst round of bloodshed since August and comes just days after Netanyahu returned from a trip to Canada and the U.S., where he said Israel must be free to protect itself from any threat.
“We are still in the midst of this round,” Netanyahu told members of his Cabinet today, according to an e-mailed statement from his office in Jerusalem. “We have exacted from them a very high price. Naturally, we will act as necessary.”
The bloodshed started with an Israeli airstrike on what the army said were two militants planning an attack from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai, including Zuhir al-Qaisi, head of the Popular Resistance Committees.
Militants based in Gaza have fired more than 95 rockets at Israel’s southern towns since March 9, and Israel has hit about 15 targets in the seaside territory. Israel has been concerned about Sinai-originated violence since eight people were killed in an attack near the resort city of Eilat in August.
Netanyahu described al-Qaisi as an “arch terrorist” and said he was “eliminated” in the midst of planning another similar attack. “We are still on alert,” he said.
Twelve Gaza rockets have struck open areas in southern Israel since the early morning with no injuries or damage reported, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Schools in southern towns and cities were ordered to stay closed today, affecting some 250,000 students, Rosenfeld said in a phone interview.
An Israeli army spokeswoman, speaking anonymously in accordance with regulations, said four Israelis have been wounded, one seriously. Abu Selmeya said 25 Palestinians have been wounded.
Netanyahu pledged to boost civilian defense with more Iron Dome anti-missile systems, which have shot down at least 32 rockets in the current round of violence, the army said.
Israel holds the Hamas Islamic movement that controls Gaza responsible for all attacks emanating from there, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said today.
“I suggest to all the heads of terrorist organizations they consider carefully what they are doing, and understand that even with all our desire for restraint, we will respond,” Liberman told Israel’s Army Radio.
Most of those killed in Gaza were members of Islamic Jihad, a small, militant group supported by Iran and considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
“This is a serious escalation by Israel,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in an e-mailed statement to reporters. He called on the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to halt security cooperation with Israel and to “allow a free hand to Palestinian resistance in response.”
Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina also blamed Israel for the escalation. “The Israeli intentions are clear and that is to destroy the Palestinian national cause,” he said in a phone interview.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, ordered medical aid sent to Gaza as soon as possible, the Palestinian News & Information Agency-WAFA said.
Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheba, questioned Israel’s wisdom in carrying out the initial strike. “This could easily escalate into something even wider than just an exchange of attacks during this weekend,” he said in a phone interview.
Talal Oukal, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said Israel was using the violence in an attempt to stop reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement. Israel has said it won’t negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., Israel and the European Union. The group seized full control of the territory in 2007, ousting forces loyal to Abbas after winning parliamentary elections a year earlier.
Peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority fell apart in September 2010 when Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month building freeze in West Bank settlements and Abbas said he wouldn’t negotiate unless all construction stopped.
“Israel is benefitting from the escalation, but it won’t promote a larger operation because it isn’t interested in one,” Oukal said by phone, adding that Egypt was likely to step in to mediate a renewal of the unofficial truce.