Israel steps up bombings in Gaza

Tel Aviv authorizes call-up of reserves troops, Hamas acknowledges firing rockets

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JERUSALEM — Israel and its Palestinian adversaries in Gaza sharply escalated the latest resurgence of hostilities Tuesday, with the Israeli military conducting a deadly aerial bombardment that targeted at least 160 Gazan sites, including homes, and militants in the enclave responding with missile volleys aimed at Israeli population centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Israeli military said Gaza militants fired more than 150 rockets, and that Israel’s missile defense system had thwarted at least 29 of them. More than 100 landed in Israel, the military said, but it was unclear whether they had caused any casualties or serious damage.

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, took responsibility late Tuesday for having fired as many as 40 long-range rockets, some of them intercepted over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where sirens sounded around 10 p.m. The Israeli military confirmed that one rocket hit Hadera, a city about 72 miles north of Gaza, the farthest range yet of the Gaza-based weapons.

Palestinian witnesses and health officials said at least 23 people had been killed in the Israeli attacks. They included seven in a house that was bombed after its occupants had been warned in a cellphone call to leave, and six in another house that members of Islamic Jihad, another militant group, said had belonged to one of its commanders.

It was the deadliest day so far in the latest escalation of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fed partly by the raw rage over the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month, a massive security crackdown by Israel there, and the grisly kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem last week.

In an ominous indication of further escalation, the Israeli government approved the call-up of 1,500 reservists, mainly Home Front Command and aerial defense units, and said later Tuesday that it had authorized the military to mobilize as many as 40,000 additional reservists if necessary for a possible ground invasion.

The Israeli military also reported Tuesday, with little detail, that it had defeated an effort to attack an army base in southern Israel by “several gunmen armed with grenades” who had approached from the sea. The army said it had killed four of the gunmen and was searching for others.

The Israeli aerial barrage followed the firing Monday of about 80 rockets out of Gaza that reached deep into southern Israel.

Witnesses and Health Ministry officials in Gaza said the first of at least five deadly Israeli airstrikes Tuesday destroyed a car in Gaza City, killing three unidentified occupants. The second was an Israeli bomb or rocket that witnesses said had been fired by an F-16 warplane on a house in Khan Younis, a town in the southeast part of Gaza, where seven occupants were found dead in the wreckage.

A telephoned warning was made to the owner of the targeted home in Khan Younis five minutes before the bombing, apparently part of the Israeli military’s stated effort to minimize unintended civilian casualties. Salah Kaware, 25, who lived in the house, said a call came to the cellphone of his brother’s wife, and that the caller urged them to leave.

An unidentified member of Hamas was reportedly killed in a third airstrike, in an open space in central Gaza. Health officials in Gaza said at least four residents had been killed in Israeli strikes elsewhere, including Gaza City and the northern part of Gaza. Ashraf al-Qedra, a Health Ministry spokesman, said more than 90 people had been wounded since the Israeli air assaults had begun.

The Israeli military said its targets had included what it called a “terror command center embedded within civilian infrastructure” utilized by a militant in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The air campaign comes after three weeks of escalating confrontation, with rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes on targets it has described as concealed rocket launchers, training sites and weapons manufacturing facilities associated with Hamas and other militant groups. Fury on both sides over the teenage victims of Israel-Palestinian enmity have fed the momentum.

Al Aksa radio, run by Hamas, reported that residents received warnings a few minutes before homes were bombed. Hamas’ military wing said in an emailed statement that the bombing of the houses was “a serious escalation” that “will oblige us to enlarge our attacks deeper into Israel.”

Early Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces announced on Twitter that it had “commenced Operation Protective Edge in Gaza against Hamas in order to stop the terror Israel’s citizens face on a daily basis.” In a statement from his office, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said, “Hamas is leading this current confrontation to a place in which it aspires to exact a heavy price from our home front. In the last few hours, we have attacked with force and struck dozens of Hamas’ assets,” Mr. Yaalon added, saying the military was “continuing its offensive effort in a manner that will exact a very heavy price from Hamas.” He said the campaign was likely to last more than a few days.

In a conference call with reporters, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said there would be “a gradual increase in the pressure we are putting on Hamas.” Col. Lerner said Israel was “watching to see what the reaction is with Hamas, to see how they respond to our steps.”

His comments echoed those of other officials and experts, who have suggested that the initial blitz was meant as a warning, with the hope that Hamas would rein in its fire to avoid a ground invasion. Referring to such a development, Col. Lerner said, “I don’t see that happening immediately.”

The hostilities erased an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November 2012. That came after a devastating, three-week military offensive waged by Israel with air and ground forces against militant groups in the winter of 2008-09.

Israeli experts often describe Israel’s periodic campaigns in Gaza in terms of “mowing the grass,” a kind of routine maintenance with the limited goals of curbing rocket fire and restoring deterrence. Critics contend that such an analogy is part of what they call Israel’s policy of dehumanizing the Palestinians and their aspirations. “This sort of maintenance needs to be carried out from time to time, perhaps even more often,” Yoav Galant, a former commander of Israel’s southern district, including the area around Gaza, told Army Radio.

In Sderot, an Israeli town about a mile from the Gaza border that was first hit by rockets 13 years ago, residents in an open-air market ran with their shopping bags to find shelter behind a truck or by a wall when an incoming rocket alert sounded, then went back to buying groceries.

Limor Porin, 42, a mother of two, said she had come to shop alone after leaving her children at home, close to a fortified room. “The family needs to eat,” she said, as the loud booms from Gaza shook the town. “Life is stronger than fear.”

Away from the market, the streets were empty, as most people opted to stay indoors.

At first, radical Islamic groups not necessarily under Hamas’ control increased the rocket fire against Israel. But by Monday, Hamas was taking responsibility for the attacks, which have put tens of thousands of Israelis on alert and sent them rushing into safe rooms and bomb shelters.

Asked about the repercussions of carrying out airstrikes in Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Col. Lerner said Hamas had created “an unacceptable, unbearable reality” for 1 million Israelis in the range of the rockets fired Monday. Gaza residents should understand, he said, that “this is the type of Ramadan Hamas has brought on them.”

Ismail Haniya, the Gaza-based deputy chief of the Hamas movement, called early Tuesday for the Palestinians to strengthen internal unity to confront the Israeli military offensive.

Hamas recently entered into a reconciliation pact with the more moderate Palestinian Authority leadership based in the West Bank, which has been urging calm. Intended to heal a seven-year split between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the pact has resulted in a new government, but so far little else.

israel - Middle East - Jerusalem - Palestinian territories - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - West Bank - Gaza Strip - Tel Aviv - Hamas - Ismail Haniyeh - Gaza


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