By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, July 7 (Reuters) - Hamas stepped up rocket fire at southern Israeli towns and Israel called up reserve troops on Monday in anticipation of a possible escalation of hostilities with the Islamist group that dominates the Gaza Strip.
The armed wing of the Palestinian group said it fired dozens of rockets within about an hour, after hundreds since mid-June.
Israel said more than 40 rockets were launched as militants' funerals were held in Gaza. Thirty struck inside Israel and the rest were shot down by rocket interceptors, the army said.
Hamas has vowed revenge for what it saw as Israel's deadliest attacks in which six Palestinian militants died, though Israel denied any involvement. The surge in violence has raged since the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths last month and a Palestinian teen last week.
Air raid sirens wailed as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israeli police said those were false alarms, but the military said rockets had triggered alerts as far as 80 kilometers from Gaza, the farthest of the latest crisis.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said the rocket fire at Israel from Gaza by Hamas fighters meant that "now the Israeli military is talking about preparedness for an escalation". It had called up several hundred reservists and was prepared to mobilize a total of 1,500.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet decided in consultations on Monday to step up air strikes against militants in coastal Gaza, but stopped short of deciding on a ground offensive for now, political sources said.
Netanyahu has pledged "to do whatever is necessary" to restore quiet to southern Israeli communities but cautioned against any rush toward wider confrontation with Hamas, whose arsenal includes long-range rockets that can reach Israel's heartland and its business capital Tel Aviv.
In dissent against Netanyahu's policy, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman dissolved his party's merger with Netanyahu's Likud faction, though still keeping his job.
"A situation in which a terrorist group has hundreds of rockets which it can decide any moment to use is intolerable," Lieberman told a news conference. "There have been suggestions that we wait ... but I don't know what we're waiting for."
Hamas claimed responsibility for firing rockets at Israel on Monday for the first time since a 2012 war with Israel that ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce.
It was enraged after its armed wing said six of its members were killed in Israeli air strikes on Monday, and another was pulled from the rubble, seriously wounded.
The death toll was the highest Hamas has suffered since the 2012 fighting.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of committing a "grave escalation" in violence and threatened to retaliate, saying Israel would "pay the price".
The Israeli military said its aircraft had targeted "terror sites and concealed rocket launchers" in the enclave, but had not hit the southern Gaza area of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where the Hamas gunmen died.
Military spokesman Lerner said the militants had died when explosives went off in a tunnel that Israel had bombed several days ago, fearing gunmen planned to use it to try and penetrate into Israel.
The Hamas fighters had apparently gone there to inspect the damage, he said.
Zuhri said Hamas rejected Israel's denial. "We hold the occupation responsible," he said.
SIX JEWISH SUSPECTS ARRESTED
Before rocket strikes picked up later in the day, Israel said a soldier had been wounded in an earlier attack. One Israeli was lightly wounded in the later rocket strikes.
The Gaza flare-up began in mid-June during Israel's search for the three teens, when Israel arrested many Hamas members across the West Bank. The Israeli military says more than 160 Gaza rockets have struck Israel since.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have risen over the killing of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank, which Israel has blamed on Hamas, and of a 16-year-old Palestinian in East Jerusalem.
Mohammed Abu Khudair's death has touched off clashes between police and stone-throwing Arab protesters in East Jerusalem and in several Arab villages in northern and southern Israel. Police said they arrested 30 people during violence on Sunday night.
Israel on Sunday announced it had arrested six Jewish suspects in what police believe was the revenge murder of Abu Khudair, whose charred body was found in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a day after Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were buried.
The three Jewish seminary students went missing while hitchhiking on June 12. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied having any role in their disappearance. (Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
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.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
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.
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)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
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.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
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.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
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.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
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.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
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.
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.