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

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."

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Qatari emir visits Gaza Strip in sign of support

Palestinians in Gaza Strip rolled out the red carpet for Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the first foreign head of state to visit the besieged seaside territory since it was taken over by the Islamist militant group Hamas in 2007
This post has been updated. See the notes below for details.

GAZA CITY -- Palestinians in the Gaza Strip rolled out the red carpet Tuesday for Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the first foreign head of state to visit the besieged seaside territory since it was taken over by the Islamist militant group Hamas in 2007.

[Updated, 10:55 a.m. Oct. 23: The emir called on Hamas and its rival, the West Bank-based Fatah Party, to reconcile their differences and work together to establish a Palestinian state.

"Palestinians should understand that division does the greatest harm to them and to the cause of all the Arabs," he said during a speech at Islamic University in Gaza.]

The visit came during a period of renewed violence between Gaza militants and Israel.

On Monday, two Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli airstrikes as they attempted to fire rockets into southern Israel, Israeli officials said. An Israeli officer was wounded Tuesday morning by an explosive device planted along the Gaza border.

In preparation for the emir's visit, Hamas deployed hundreds of security guards to protect the him and his delegation, and lined the streets with Qatari flags.

Hamas leaders have been looking increasingly to Qatar for patronage since the unrest in Syria led the militant group to abandon its base in Damascus.

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Palestinians vote in first local elections since 2005


RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinians headed to the polls Saturday in the West Bank’s first local elections in seven years, selecting new leaders for 93 cities and villages.

Turnout was light in the morning but picked up as the day progressed, according to officials from the central elections commission.

As they cast their votes, many Palestinians expressed pride and happiness that the long-delayed local elections were finally being held.

“It makes me feel that democracy is well here,” said Tareq Makhlouf, 26, a U.S.-born Palestinian who moved to Ramallah last year.

Others said they hoped the new slate of local leaders would bring change.

“It is time to see new faces in the municipalities,” said Faisal Darras after casting a vote at a Ramallah polling station. “Seven years of the same faces is enough .... Elections should be held every four years, not every seven.”

The Palestinian Authority had attempted to conduct local elections several times since 2010, but votes were canceled due to political instability and the fracture between the two main Palestinian parties, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, did not allow voting to take place in the seaside territory and urged its supporters in the West Bank to boycott Saturday’s poll.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cast his vote in al-Bireh, Ramallah’s sister city. It is believed he voted for his party’s list, the Fatah-led Independence and Development bloc, one of only two lists running in the city.

“This is a day of democracy for the Palestinian people,” Abbas said.

He expressed hope that the Palestinian people would soon be able to vote in presidential and legislative elections as well. The last national election was held in 2006.

Counting the votes will start soon after the polls close Saturday evening, but preliminary results will not be announced before Sunday afternoon, election officials said.

Because of the Hamas boycott, most analysts predict Fatah lists will dominate the new local councils.


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Photo: A Palestinian woman looks at a voter registration list outside a polling station in the West Bank city of Hebron. Credit: Abed Hashlamoun / EPA

Gaza militant killed in renewed clashes with Israel

Renewed clashes between Gaza Strip militants and Israeli soldiers left one Palestinian fighter dead and 14 others wounded, while southern Israeli cities were showered with several dozen mortars and rockets
GAZA CITY -- Renewed clashes between Gaza Strip militants and Israeli soldiers left one Palestinian fighter dead Monday and 14 others wounded, while southern Israeli cities were showered with several dozen mortars and rockets.

For the first time since June, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, joined other armed groups in firing rockets at Israel.

The exchange was triggered by an Israeli airstrike over the weekend that targeted a motorcycle carrying two people who Israel said were responsible for cross-border attacks earlier this year.

One of the passengers, Abdullah Mekawi, 25, died from his wounds, Hamas officials said.

Militant groups responded early Monday by firing an estimated 40 mortar rounds and rockets. No Israelis were injured, but some property damage was reported.


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Photo: Palestinians gather around the wreckage of motorcycle following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Sunday. The attack was followed Monday by cross-border clashes between Israel and militant groups in the coastal enclave. Credit: Evad Baba / Associated Press

Hamas court in Gaza Strip convicts killers of Italian activist

Vittorio Arrigoni graffiti
GAZA STRIP - A Hamas-run military court in Gaza Strip on Monday delivered life sentences to two men, Mahmoud Salfiti and Tamer Husana, who were accused of the 2011 kidnapping and murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni.

Another suspect, Khader Jirma, was sentenced to 10 years for taking part in the murder and a fourth, Amir Abu Ghoula, received one year in prison for helping to harbor the kidnappers.

The verdict followed more than 20 court hearings during which Arrigoni’s family hired an Italian attorney to help monitor the case. Arrigoni was kidnapped in 2011 by Islamist extremists who were demanding that one of their leaders be released from a Hamas prison.

The family of the pro-Palestinian activist had requested that the death penalty not be imposed, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.


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Photo: Men walk in front of a wall with graffiti depicting late pro-Palestinian Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza City. Credit: Hatem Moussa / Associated Press


Israel airstrike kills 3 in Gaza allegedly preparing rocket attack

Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrike

GAZA CITY -- An Israeli airstrike killed at least three Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday night as they were preparing to launch a homemade rocket into Israel, witnesses and officials said.

The men were killed while driving in a car outside the Bureij refugee camp, witnesses said. A fourth man was critically injured.

Among those killed were Khalil Jerba, 22, and Khaled Qerem, 24, medical officials said.

Israeli military officials said the men had been implicated in previous rocket attacks. So far this year Palestinian militants have fired about 450 rockets into southern Israel, the military said.


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Photo: Palestinians stand by the body of one of three men killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images

Gaza Strip beauty salon damaged in bomb attack

GAZA CITY -- Islamic extremists are suspected in the bombing Wednesday of a beauty salon at the Nusseirat refugee camp, officials said.

No one was hurt because the shop was closed, officials said, but the building suffered substantial damage.

It was the first such bombing in Gaza in more than two years, following a crackdown by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, against smaller groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. Such groups had targeted beauty salons, Internet cafes and churches.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the most recent attack.

The explosion comes a week after Hamas released two leaders of one of the Gaza-based extremist groups, Hisham Saidny, 56, and his deputy, Mahmoud Talib.


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Israeli soldier agrees to plea deal in shooting deaths of Gaza women

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli soldier who was indicted two years ago in the fatal shooting of two Gaza Strip women during the 22-day military offensive Operation Cast Lead has agreed to a plea bargain in which he will serve 45 days in jail for illegal use of a weapon, Israeli Army Radio reported Sunday.

The soldier, who was not identified, could have faced up to 20 years in prison on the manslaughter charge.

His case was one of a handful of criminal prosecutions -- and one of the most serious -- to arise from Israel's conduct during the 2008-2009 offensive against Hamas-controlled Gaza, an operation aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets into southern Israel.

The incident was among those mentioned in the United Nations' Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians during the conflict.

Majda Abu Hajaj, 35, and her mother, Raya Salama Abu Hajaj, 64, were killed as they fled fighting with a group of civilians carrying a white flag, witnesses at the time reported.

Israeli human rights groups viewed the case against the soldier as an acknowledgment by the military that at least one of its soldiers deliberately fired at civilians.

The soldier admitted during a preliminary investigation that he fired his weapon into the group without permission, hitting one of the people, according to Israel media. He said he first fired warning shots and feared militants hiding among the group. 

His attorneys later argued that there was no conclusive proof that his client killed either of the women.


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Israel credits preparedness for averting deaths in Sinai attacks

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

JERUSALEM -- As Egypt deployed attack helicopters Monday to the Sinai Peninsula to search for militants who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, Israeli officials credited advance intelligence and a quick response for averting what they said was meant to be a large-scale suicide attack on their side of the border.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the restive area and praised the country’s security forces for quickly destroying a stolen Egyptian armored vehicle after it crashed through a border fence.

As many as 35 militants attacked an Egyptian security post Sunday night as soldiers were breaking fast from the Ramadan holiday, Egyptian authorities said. The attackers stole two armored vehicles and began racing toward the Israel border crossing near Karam abu Salem.

One vehicle, loaded with an undetermined number of militants wearing suicide vests, exploded into an Israeli border post that had been evacuated as a precaution. The second vehicle then entered Israel and was immediately destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, killing eight militants, Israeli officials said.

There were no Israeli casualties during the 15-minute attack.

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Israel releases speaker of Palestinian parliament from detention

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli authorities released a senior Hamas lawmaker Thursday after six months held under the controversial practice of administrative detention.

Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian parliament, was arrested Jan. 19 at a checkpoint as he was leaving Ramallah for his hometown of Hebron in the southern end of the West Bank.

Israel uses administrative detention to hold Palestinians in prison without charge or trial for up to six months, with the possibility of indefinite extensions. The practice is widely condemned by the international community.

Some of the more than 300 Palestinians held under the system recently participated in long hunger strikes to protest their detention, and some have won release.

Dweik, who is in his 60s, was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006 on a Hamas-backed ticket. The parliament largely stopped functioning when Hamas' forces drove loyalists of the Fatah movement out of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

On Thursday, members of his family and Hamas lawmakers and officials waited for him at an Israeli army checkpoint near Ramallah, where he was dropped off.

Dweik’s attorney, Fadi Qawasmi, who had negotiated a deal with the military prosecutor to allow the release of the speaker at the end of his term, said he believed Dweik was released because of his stature as speaker of the parliament.

“Pressure from parliament members around the world must have left an impact on the Israeli decision to release him,” he said.

Israel still holds 21 Palestinian lawmakers from the West Bank, almost all of them members of Hamas, under administrative detention.


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Photo: Senior Hamas member Aziz Dweik is embraced by a supporter Thursday  after his release from Israeli administrative detention near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Credit: Majdi Mohammed / Associated Press


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