Israel, Hamas slide toward major Gaza conflict
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Five Palestinians were killed on Tuesday as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza at the start of a new campaign to stamp out rocket fire by Hamas militants on southern Israel.
It was the most serious flare-up in and around the territory since November 2012 and came as Israel struggled to contain a wave of violence in Arab towns over the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas demanded Israel “immediately stop” its air campaign, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, and asked the international community to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu was expected to order a “significant broadening” of the operation at an afternoon meeting with security chiefs and instruct the army to “take off the gloves,” a source close to him told army radio.
After nearly four weeks of restraint in the face of intensifying rocket fire on the south, Israel appeared bent on dealing the Islamist Hamas movement a heavy blow, with officials speaking of a “staged escalation.”
In central Gaza, one man was killed in an air strike west of Nusseirat refugee camp, with medics naming him as Ashraf Yassin.
Witnesses said he was a militant of the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist Hamas movement.
Shortly afterwards four men were killed when a missile slammed into a car in the center of Gaza City, the emergency services said, without giving further details.
Three more militants were killed in air strikes on Monday, two from the Popular Resistance Committees and one from Hamas. Another five Hamas militants died when a tunnel collapsed near the southern city of Rafah.
A total of 29 Palestinians were injured on Tuesday, two of them seriously, emergency services spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra said.
The Israeli army said the air force and the navy had struck around 50 “terror sites” overnight in a joint operation which had three aims — returning calm to the south, “eliminating Hamas’s capabilities” and destroying Gaza’s “terror infrastructure.”
It also destroyed the homes of four Hamas militants it accused of firing on Israel.
The Israeli army was preparing all options to stamp out militant rocket fire from Gaza, including a ground assault, a senior official told AFP.
“The army is preparing for all possible scenarios, including an invasion or a ground operation,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard,” military spokesman General Moti
Almoz told the radio, saying the operation would take place “in stages.”
He also confirmed Israel was preparing for a possible ground offensive.
“All options are on the table, all these steps are being considered. Two brigades, which are currently stationed around the Gaza Strip, are prepared and ready, and in the coming days, more will arrive,” he said.
Around Gaza, dozens of tanks and soldiers could be seen massing along the border, AFP correspondents reported.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned it was likely to be a protracted campaign.
“We are preparing for a campaign against Hamas, which will not end in just a few days,” he said in a statement which defined the aim as being “to exact a very heavy price from Hamas.”
Since June 12, when the current round of tit-for-tat violence began, Gaza militants have fired more than 320 rockets over the border, with 250 of them hitting Israeli territory and another 40 intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system.
So far there have been no Israelis killed.
In the past 12 hours, militants have fired at least 26 rockets at southern Israel, an army spokeswoman said.
The education ministry canceled all summer schools and camps within a 40 kilometer (25 mile) radius of Gaza, except those being held in protected spaces, army radio reported.
“We have to hit Hamas because our power of deterrence has been reduced,” Interior Minister Gideon Saar told public radio.
“No one is enthusiastic about the idea of a military confrontation, but we cannot hesitate any more.
“We cannot restore the calm without proving to Hamas that it is absolutely in its interest to halt attacks on Israel, but to do that, we must hit it sufficiently hard.
The latest flare-up comes as Israel battled to contain a wave of Arab unrest after the grisly kidnap and murder of the Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists in a suspected revenge attack.
Three of them have confessed, an official close to the investigation told AFP.
The killing sparked five days of clashes between angry protesters and riot police in annexed east Jerusalem and Arab towns across Israel. Police arrested another 39 people overnight, raising the overall number of people detained to 299.