JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Monday dedicated a school named after his late father in a West Bank settlement, days before the U.S. secretary of state is to arrive on a new peace mission.
Benjamin Netanyahu's West Bank visit, played down by Israeli officials, nonetheless drew attention to Israeli settlement policy there, an issue that lies at the heart of the nearly five-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians say they will not negotiate while Israel continues to build in settlements on occupied territories. Netanyahu says the fate of the settlements should be resolved in negotiations, and talks should resume immediately without any preconditions.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future state.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem, home to sensitive religious sites, in a move that has never been internationally recognized. While Israel has not annexed the West Bank, it has justified its continued control of the area, and its construction of dozens of settlements, by referring to security concerns and the Jewish biblical connection to the land.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Barkan settlement, Netanyahu said his father Benzion, a professor of Jewish history who died last year at the age of 102, always stressed the "link to our land."
"The most important thing is to deepen the roots – because from these everything grows," Netanyahu told a class of schoolchildren. "Today, we are here deepening our roots."
An official in Netanyahu's office said the prime minister attended Monday's ceremony to honor his father, and that the visit to Barkan, located in the northern West Bank, was not meant to be a political statement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the upcoming visit by Secretary of State John Kerry with reporters. Palestinian officials had no immediate comment.
Kerry is scheduled to arrive late this week for what would be his fifth visit to the region since taking office early this year. Kerry has been shuttling between the Israelis and the Palestinians in search of a formula to restart talks. So far, there have been no signs of a breakthrough.
Netanyahu's West Bank visit came hours after a flare-up in violence between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israeli aircraft pounded targets in Gaza early Monday after Palestinian militants fired rockets at Israel from the territory, the military said, unsettling a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. No injuries were reported on either side.
Rocket fire from Gaza has declined since Israel carried out an eight-day military campaign last November in response to frequent attacks. An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire has largely held, but sporadic fire still persists.
No militant group claimed responsibility for the rocket launch, but speaking on Army Radio, Israel's chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai blamed the Islamic Jihad group. Islamic Jihad has occasionally fired rockets from Gaza in the past, challenging the Hamas truce with Israel.
Israel said it holds Hamas, which rules the coastal territory, ultimately accountable for the renewed fire.
"My policy is to harm whoever tries to harm us," Netanyahu said. "That is how we will work and will continue to act against threats that are close and threats that are far."
In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he would not be intimidated by Israel's strikes. "Any Israeli aggression does not scare the Palestinian people," he said.
Also Monday, Israeli police said that vandals slashed the tires of 21 cars in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The vandals also scribbled slogans on nearby walls.
It was the latest in a wave of similar acts linked to Jewish extremists targeting mosques, churches, monasteries, dovish Israeli groups and even Israeli military bases to protest what they perceive as the Israeli government's pro-Palestinian policies in the West Bank. Vandals call the attacks the "price tag" for the policies they oppose.
Last week vandals struck an Arab village outside of Jerusalem that has been a model of coexistence in Israel.
Rosenfeld said police were investigating. He said no arrests have been made in the recent string of similar crimes.
Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.