Israeli troops mobilize as Gaza militants increase rocket attacks

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JERUSALEM — Israel mobilized troops around the Gaza Strip on Thursday after Palestinian militants there stepped up rocket attacks on southern Israel, heightening tensions following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students and the suspected revenge killing of an Arab teenager in East Jerusalem.

Israel said the deployments were ordered as a defensive measure after dozens of rockets were fired into its territory from Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas. The Israeli military said it responded Wednesday and Thursday with airstrikes on 16 Hamas targets in the coastal enclave, including rocket-launching sites and weapons warehouses.

A Gaza Health Ministry spokesman said the airstrikes injured 10 people. In southern Israel, where residents were advised to stay in bomb shelters, the military said a residential building and kindergarten were damaged and one soldier was injured by rocket fire that continued into Thursday evening.

An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said the troop mobilization did not signal an intent by Israel to ready for a military operation against Hamas, which Israel has blamed for the recent kidnapping and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. But he said any de-escalation in violence would need to start with Hamas, which reached a cease-fire agreement with Israel after an eight-day war in November 2012.

“We need to be prepared” for an escalation, said Col. Lerner, who would not say how many or what kind of forces had been dispatched to the border area near Gaza. The Associated Press reported that tanks, artillery and ground forces had been deployed.

Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, accused Israel of breaching the cease-fire, and said Hamas was prepared to fight if Israel launched a military assault on Gaza. Israel “might make the decision to start the battle, but it will never be able to determine the track of that battle,” he said.

Clashes that began Wednesday between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem continued Thursday afternoon. Several hundred youths confronted Israeli security forces, throwing rocks and firecrackers and vandalizing parts of the light rail line that runs though the neighborhood. Israeli police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The cross-border fire and blame came as the family of Mohammad Abu Khieder, 16, prepared for his funeral, to take place after Friday prayers in East Jerusalem, an event that could fan tensions. Mohammad was abducted and found dead Wednesday in what authorities are investigating as a possible killing meant to avenge the deaths of the three Israelis. His relatives said Thursday that they had hoped to bury him more quickly after his death, according to Muslim tradition, but that they were still waiting for Israeli forensics authorities to release the remains.

“It is like a dream, and you want it to be a dream,” Hussein Abu Khieder, the slain youth’s father, said in an interview. “My boy is sweet, and we have no problem with anybody.”

The father denied allegations that his son was killed as a result of family strife. “This is not a family dispute,” he said. “This is just what the Israelis are trying to spread.”

Although the Israeli police have yet to determine whether the latest murder was a “nationalistic” or a criminal act, residents of the Arab teen’s neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where he was abducted, insisted that Jewish settlers were behind the grisly killing. Police found the teenager’s charred body Wednesday in a forest on the city‘‍s outskirts.

Speaking at an Independence Day event at the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the Palestinian youth’s murder, saying “vigilantes have no place in our democracy.” He vowed to bring those responsible to justice.

Mohammad was killed two days after the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli religious students who were abducted June 12 near a West Bank settlement. Their bodies were found Monday in a shallow grave covered by rocks near the tense West Bank city of Hebron. The killing of the three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — sparked national outrage and collective mourning in Israel.

Israel blames Hamas for the killings, and Mr. Netanyahu has vowed that it will “pay.” The Sunni Islamist group, which Israel, the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist organization, has denied involvement in the deaths of the Israeli teens.

israel - Middle East - Jerusalem - Palestinian territories - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - West Bank - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Hamas


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