Mideast Conflict: Israel Hits Key Hamas Targets In Gaza Offensive

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JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
JACK GUEZ via Getty Images

JERUSALEM (AP) — With rockets raining deep inside Israel, the military pummeled Palestinian targets Wednesday across the Gaza Strip and threatened a broad ground offensive, while the first diplomatic efforts to end two days of heavy fighting got underway.

Egypt, which has mediated before between Israel and the Hamas militant group, said it spoke to all sides about ending the violence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in touch with Israel to try to lower tensions. And the United Nations chief warned of a "deteriorating situation ... which could quickly get beyond anyone's control."

As the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 75, neither side showed any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012.

Israel said it hit more than 300 targets and Hamas positions throughout Gaza, including rocket-launchers, weapons-storage sites and tunnels that it said the group uses to carry out attacks. The military said 74 rockets landed in Israel, including one that reached the northern city of Hadera, the deepest rocket strike ever from Gaza.

"Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns."

Israel began the offensive Tuesday in response to weeks of rocket launches, and officials said the airstrikes would continue until the firing stops. At least 20 civilians were among the at least 75 deaths reported by the Health Ministry in Gaza. There have been no serious casualties on the Israeli side.

Thousands of Israeli troops massed near the Gaza border, the possibility of a ground invasion grew larger — along with the risk of heavier casualties on both sides.

"Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army," Yuval Steinitz, Israel's intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. "If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching."

The government has authorized the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists, and Israeli TV stations said about a quarter of those forces had been called up, signaling a decision on a ground invasion could still be days away.

A ground offensive in Gaza would be a risky gamble for Israel. It could lead to heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and trigger strong international criticism, as was the case during one that killed hundreds of Palestinians in 2009. Israeli troops would also be at much greater risk if they enter Gaza's crowded urban landscape, home to 1.8 million people, especially for a long-term presence.

Tal Russo, a former general who retired last year as head of Israel's southern command, said a ground offensive did not guarantee success. "There is no such concept as 'decisive,' and that needs to be understood," he told Channel 10 TV.

Israeli security officials say they have prepared different scenarios inside Gaza, ranging from a quick pinpoint operation to a full re-occupation of the seaside strip. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

In the first indication that cease-fire efforts were underway, the office of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he held "extensive contacts with all active and concerned parties" to end the fighting.

It said the two sides discussed the "critical conditions and the need to stop all military action, and to stop the slide" toward more violence. It called on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians.

Egypt negotiated a cease-fire that ended the 2012 fighting, but the situation has changed since then. At the time, Egypt was led by the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional movement that includes Hamas. Following a military coup last year, el-Sissi was elected president, and the new government is far more hostile toward Hamas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he spent Wednesday calling Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, el-Sissi and other regional leaders to push the two sides toward a cease-fire

"This is one of the most critical tests the region has faced in recent years," Ban told a news conference. "Gaza is on a knife-edge. The deteriorating situation is leading to a downward spiral which could quickly get beyond anyone's control."

In Washington, the State Department said Kerry spoke by phone with Netanyahu and planned to talk to Abbas to urge both sides to de-escalate the crisis.

Netanyahu confirmed he spoke to Kerry, Ban and German leader Angela Merkel, but gave no indication the offensive would stop.

"Today I spoke with several world leaders. I appreciated their expressions of strong support for our right and our duty to defend ourselves, and this is what we will continue to do," he said.

If the offensive drags on, Netanyahu could find himself under increased pressure to halt it, especially if the civilian death toll mounts.

The airstrikes have demolished dozens of buildings. Among the latest dead were an 80-year-old woman, an 11-year-old girl, a 14-year-old boy and two young children. Israel has accused militants of endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover.

Mohammed al-Nuasrah of the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza described a scene of horror after an airstrike flattened a nearby home.

"Four people from the family died, and we're sitting looking for the remains of the kids. One is 3 and one is 4 years old," he said. "These children were just sleeping in their beds. What crime did they commit? Only God can judge you, Israel."

In a statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera, Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, called on all Palestinians to resist Israel and urged the international community to put pressure on Israel.

"Yes, our enemy is stronger than us, but we are up to the task of facing them, God willing," he said. "We do not threaten or promise. Our right is to defend our lives."

The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed.

Besides firing toward Israel's two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the city of Hadera for the first time. The city, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza, was struck in 2006 by missiles fired by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

"We got it from both directions," said Maayan From, a 25-year-old Hadera resident. "Our enemies have developed, and it is getting scary."

In the West Bank, Abbas accused Israel of committing "genocide" due to the mounting civilian death toll and said it raised questions about Israel's commitment to peace.

Tensions have been rising since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions but provided no proof.

Israel then cracked down on the group's members in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded by stepping up rocket fire.

The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of the three were found, followed a day later by the abduction in Jerusalem of a Palestinian teenager who was found burned to death in what Palestinians believe was a revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested in the killing.

Adding to the tension, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the slain teenager was beaten by Israeli police at a protest. Israel's Justice Ministry said one of the officers would face criminal charges.

___

Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Najib Jobain in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Ian Deitch and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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From Reuters:

The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.

"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.

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Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.

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The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

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From Reuters:

Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.

"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."

Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.

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Reuters reports:

Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

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A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.

The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.

For more, click here.

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From Reuters:

Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.

Hamas had no immediate comment.

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ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.

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08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect

Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.

Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.

Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.

The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.

The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.

Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.

Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.

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India's NDTV has released footage that appears to show three Palestinian militants setting up a rocket launching site in a crowded area of Gaza. The rarity of the video is remarkable, as militants in the enclave are notoriously covert in their launching operations.

NDTV journalist Sreenivasan Jain describes the scene from his neighboring balcony, narrating as blurred figures move in and out of the suspected rocket site.

Read more here.

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In an interview with HuffPost UK, former British Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi explained why she dramatically quit the government on Tuesday.

Speaking exclusively to The Huffington Post UK in her first interview since resigning on Tuesday morning, the Tory peer accused the coalition of failing to act as an "honest broker" in the Middle East and called for an immediate arms embargo against Israel.

"The British government can only play a constructive role in solving the Middle East crisis if it is an honest broker," the former Foreign Office minister said, "and at the moment I do not think it is."

Read the full story here.

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From the Associated Press:

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Jordan has circulated a revised U.N. resolution calling for a durable cease-fire in the Gaza war and condemning "all violence and hostilities against civilians."

Jordan's new U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar said the draft resolution was submitted to the Security Council on Tuesday in a form that could be put to a vote.

"We are in consultation with all council members and we hope by the next day or two that we come with a product," she said.

The draft resolution calls for "the sustained reopening" of crossing points into Gaza and calls on the U.N. to establish a mechanism to monitor implementation of a cease-fire agreement.

It makes no mention of Hamas or its rocketing of Israel and is likely to face an uphill struggle winning U.S. approval.

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Agence France Presse reports on an initial assessment of the cost of damage to the Gaza Strip after weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Palestinian deputy economy minister Taysir Amro said "direct damages" will cost Gaza at least -6 billion in damage, and that the number will rise once further assessment of the full scale of damage is possible, according to the news agency.

Read the full story here.

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From Reuters:

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was "clear evidence" of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors on Tuesday to push for an investigation.

Malki visited The Hague shortly after Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza entered a 72-hour truce mediated by Egypt in an effort to pave the way for an extended ceasefire.

Malki said the Palestinian Authority wanted to give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes by all sides and had discussed a timeline with prosecutors to join the court. He did not provide details.

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08/05/2014 6:35 AM EDT
Gaza, Post-Offensive
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Sayeeda Warsi, senior minister of state at the British Foreign Office, has tendered her resignation because she can "no longer support" the country's policy on Gaza, BBC News reported.

Warsi took to Twitter to confirm the news:

Click here for more.

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08/05/2014 2:23 AM EDT
72-Hour Cease-Fire Takes Effect
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A spokesman for Hamas told Reuters that the Islamist group also agrees to a Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

"Hamas told Egypt a short while ago of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

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An Israeli official says Israel has agreed to a temporary Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Reuters reports.

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Egypt is urging senior Israeli and Palestinian delegations to join in talks on a permanent ceasefire for Gaza in the Egyptian capital, Reuters reports. Cairo also calls on Palestinians and Israelis to accept a proposal for a 72-hour ceasefire that would start tomorrow morning.

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08/04/2014 3:29 PM EDT
Ceasefire Agreement?

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Palestinian factions have agreed to an Egyptian proposal for a 72-hour ceasefire that would start tomorrow morning. While Palestinians officials have said Israel agreed to the truce as well, there is no official response from the Israeli government yet.

Read more here.


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Britain is investigating the possible death of one of its citizens in Gaza, Reuters reports on Monday. The country's Foreign Office said it had received reports a British national was killed in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday.

More from Reuters:

(Reuters) - Britain is "urgently" investigating reports that a British national was killed in Gaza over the weekend, a spokesman for the British government said on Monday.

Britain sought to establish the man's fate as a brief Israeli truce to allow aid to reach Palestinians ended amid accusations of strikes by both sides, while Jerusalem was rocked by two attacks that appeared to be a backlash against the war in Gaza.

Citing friends of the man, British media reported that an aid worker from Rochdale in northern England had been killed on Sunday during an Israeli strike on Rafah while he was delivering supplies for a hospital.

"We are aware of the reports of the death of a British national in Rafah and are urgently looking into them," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said.

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The number of displaced Palestinians seeking shelter at UN facilities has topped 270,000.

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08/04/2014 11:48 AM EDT
Report: Israel Is Resuming Strikes

A spokesperson for the Israeli army reportedly told Agence France Presse that Israel is resuming its airstrikes in Gaza.

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In a statement released on Monday, Human Rights Watch accused Israeli troops of having opened fire and killing several fleeing civilians in the town of Khuza'a in southern Gaza. The international human rights group says the incidents took place between July 23 and July 25.

Human Rights Watch investigated several incidents between July 23 and 25 when, local residents said, Israeli forces opened fire on civilians trying to flee Khuza’a, but no Palestinian fighters were present at the time and no firefights were taking place.

On the morning of July 23, Israeli forces ordered a group of about 100 Palestinians in Khuza’a to leave a home in which they had gathered to take shelter, family members said. The first member to leave the house, Shahid al-Najjar, had his hands up but an Israeli soldier shot him in the jaw, seriously injuring him.

Israeli soldiers detained the men and boys over age 15 in an area close to the Gaza perimeter fence. Based on statements from witnesses and news reports, some were taken to Israel for questioning. Israeli forces released others that day, in small separate groups. As one group walked unarmed to Khan Younis, Israeli soldiers fired on them, killing one and wounding two others.

Read the briefing here.

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A gunmen opened fire near Jerusalem's Hebrew University, hitting a soldier in the stomach. It was the second incident in the Israeli capital this morning. Earlier, a man drove a construction vehicle into a bus.

Haaretz reports:

According to a preliminary investigation of the Mt. Scopus incident, a man dressed in black shot a 20-year-old soldier in the stomach, wounding him seriously, got on a motorcycle that was waiting for him and fled the scene. A security guard standing nearby shot at the suspect, but failed to hit him. Security forces are attempting to apprehend the attacker.

Read the full story here.

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