Rockets raise Mideast stakes

Israel steps up airstrikes and mobilizes reserves after barrage by militants in Gaza

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JERUSALEM — Gaza Strip militants bombarded southern Israel with dozens of rockets, sending Israel closer to escalating its battle against them as it stepped up airstrikes and mobilized reserves.

About 80 rockets hit Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza on Sunday, reaching as deep as 25 miles inside Israeli territory, the military said. The army is reinforcing regular paratrooper and infantry forces on the Gaza border with as many as 1,500 reservists, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said in a phone briefing. “While last week, the army talked about de-escalation, now we’re talking about preparation for possible escalation,” he said.

Cabinet ministers who met in Jerusalem on Sunday ordered harsher airstrikes against the increased rocket fire, though not a broad ground offensive in the Palestinian territory, Channel 2 TV reported. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told the station that “Israel must broadcast deterrence. The entire Mideast is looking.”

Hamas security officials in Gaza said Monday that Israeli Army jets conducted dozens of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, destroying three houses and wounding 12 Palestinians. Israel is carrying out an aerial mission in Gaza, said an Israeli army spokesman, who declined to elaborate.

Gaza militants began bombarding southern Israel after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month led to an Israeli roundup of Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed the killings on Hamas, which has neither confirmed nor denied involvement.

Mr. Netanyahu has refrained from hitting harder in Gaza so far because he understands “that this is a vicious cycle that can lead to an invasion and reoccupation of at least part of the Gaza Strip,” said Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “If missiles hit Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it could go to something bigger.”

Israel evacuated its troops from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation. It has carried out two large offensives against Gaza militants in the past six years, including a ground incursion in January 2009.

For the first time Sunday, Hamas took responsibility for rockets fired during the latest round of violence. The statement to reporters may have implications for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ formation last month of a unity government backed by Hamas. Mr. Abbas has said the new government, which ended a seven-year rift between the West Bank and Gaza, would abide by principles of nonviolence. About 10 Palestinian officials contacted by phone declined to comment.

“This puts Abu Mazen in a very bad position,” said Mr. Maoz, the Hebrew University professor, using the nomme de guerre that Mr. Abbas goes by. “He won’t be able to work any longer with Hamas.”

In a statement carried on the official Palestinian Wafa news agency, Mr. Abbas demanded that Israel halt its air strikes and refrain from a “dangerous escalation” that could embroil the entire Middle East.

Israel is shunning the new Palestinian government, established after the collapse of U.S.-sponsored peace talks in April, because of its Hamas backing. Israel, like the United States and the European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

More than 230 rockets have landed in Israel since the June 12 abductions, according to the military’s count. Some fired Sunday reached as far as Ashdod, 25 miles from Gaza, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by phone. Authorities in some southern communities were ordered to prepare bomb shelters, the military said on its Twitter account. While there have been no serious injuries from rocket fire, homes have been hit.

Israeli aircraft struck 18 targets Sunday, including attacks that killed at least nine Palestinians and wounded a 4- year-old girl, according to Hamas officials. Targets included a tunnel that Hamas fighters had built to smuggle militants into Israel to attack civilians and soldiers, the military said in an e-mailed statement. In all, 12 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza air strikes and seven in the West Bank arrest raids.

For Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s response to the rocket fire hasn’t been forceful enough. He dismantled his political alliance with Mr. Netanyahu’s governing Likud party on Sunday. “It is no secret that substantial and fundamental differences have arisen in recent days between myself and the prime minister that do not allow us to continue the joint framework,” Mr. Liberman said at a televised news conference from the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.

While his Yisrael Beitenu party was ending its political ties with Mr. Netanyahu’s party, it will remain in the coalition because “there is no better alternative to this coalition at this time,” he said.

Yisrael Beitenu and Likud ran as a joint parliamentary list in the 2013 elections, in a failed bid to gain more parliamentary seats as a united bloc while continuing to function as separate parties.


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