Israel, Palestinian militants exchange strikes in Gaza Strip flare-up

Israel-rockets
JERUSALEM -- Tensions along the Gaza Strip intensified Wednesday as a sustained barrage of rockets fired into Israel prompted an Israeli airstrike, marking an escalation in the latest round of fighting in the region.

In a morning barrage, Palestinian militants fired more than 50 rockets into Israel, officials said, with several making direct hits on farms and residences. Three immigrant Thai farm workers who were injured in the attacks were airlifted for medical treatment.

School was canceled throughout Israeli communities bordering on the Gaza Strip, and residents were instructed to remain near shelters and protected areas.

Israel retaliated with an airstrike on Gaza, the fourth in 24 hours.

"The [Israel Defense Forces] will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli civilians and will operate against anyone who uses terror against the state of Israel," said an army statement that held Hamas, which seized control of the seaside territory in 2007, "solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip."

In the past week of strikes and counter-strikes, the Israeli military has killed 10 people in Gaza and injured 10 more in an attempt to foil rocket fire and other attacks, according to army spokesman Yoav Mordechai, who told Israel Radio that all of the casualties were "terrorists."

Commentators suggested that Wednesday's intense exchange was a delayed response on both sides after a lull in the fighting during the landmark visit of the emir of Qatar to Gaza Strip on Tuesday.

"We neither chose nor initiated this escalation, but if it continues we are prepared for much more extensive and deeper action. In any case, we will continue with preventative operations. Whoever intends to attack Israeli citizens needs to know that he will bear the consequences," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday during a tour of an Iron Dome battery in southern Israel. Iron Dome is an Israeli mobile air-defense system used to intercept rockets.

Israel must increase deterrence, "including targeting Hamas leaders and threatening to topple its rule," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told local media Wednesday, adding the country could not be at the mercy of the "whims of Hamas' terror."

Mordechai, the army spokesman, said Israel's next steps would depend on how things unfold, and he suggested that matters might calm in advance of this weekend's Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. But he stressed that continued rocket fire would meet with a "very determined response." 

Regarding the possibility of toppling Hamas' rule over Gaza, Mordechai said such an initiative would require an extensive operation "with many implications, including diplomatic aspects," and that he did not think this option is being discussed at this time.

Wednesday morning's attacks came hours before European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was due to start a visit to the region for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Over the weekend, Ashton criticized Israel over its plans to build hundreds of apartments in Gilo, a Jewish development built on lands seized in 1967 and annexed to Jerusalem.

"Settlements are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible," she said in a statement that urged resumption of peace talks.

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-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: Israeli police look at damage to a house in Netiv Haasara, along the border with the Gaza Strip, after it was hit by a rocket fired Wednesday by Palestinian militants in Gaza. Credit: EDI / EPA

 
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