Israel hit the Gaza Strip with airstrikes and artillery shells for a second straight day Thursday and Hamas ramped up rocket fire at Israel, as both sides widened hostilities in the conflict’s bloodiest escalation in four years.
The attacks followed an Israeli strike on Wednesday that killed Ahmed Jabari, the commander of Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. The attack on Mr. Jabari, and a barrage on what Israel said were several other Hamas military sites, came after several days of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory.
The casualty toll mounted on both sides Thursday morning. In Israel, a Palestinian rocket struck an apartment complex in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, killing three people, according to Israeli police officials. They were the first Israeli casualties in the conflict, which has seen Palestinian militants fire upward of 130 rockets at Israel. The Palestinian toll rose to 13 dead and over 100 wounded in the two days of strikes, according to Gaza health officials.
The Gaza assault thrusts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the region’s spotlight for the first time since Arab Spring uprisings swept the region nearly two years ago. Since the last Israeli-Hamas war ended in 2009, several of the Middle East’s core relationships have fundamentally changed. An Islamist government has come to power in Egypt, on Israel’s southern border. To the east, Syria is embroiled in war..
The resurgent violence in Israel stands as an early test of how those historic changes will impact and reshape a conflict that has in many ways defined the region’s politics for much of the past century. Among the lingering questions are whether democratically elected Islamic leaning governments will chart a different course than their predecessors in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another is how Hamas’s break with Syria’s regime, long its chief regional patron, will impact its policies.
On Thursday, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed to work to stop Israel’s campaign against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, calling it an “unacceptable aggression.” He ordered his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to travel to the territory in a show of support, the Associated Press reported said, in what would be the highest-level Egyptian official to visit Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. The previous day, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel, the first such instance since 2000.
Still, Mr. Morsi took a low-key tone in his first public comments on the crisis, expressing support for the Palestinians in Gaza but avoiding sharp condemnations of Israel.
His comments were in contrast to the heavy rhetoric against Israel in the past few days by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement from which Mr. Morsi emerged.
Tel Aviv residents say they heard an explosion following an air-raid alert across the city, raising fears of a Gaza rocket strike on Israel’s commercial capital, the AP reported. But Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai says nothing landed on the ground, raising the possibility it fell in the sea, the AP reported, adding that the head of Israel’s rescue service said no injuries have been reported.
A strike on Tel Aviv would be the first time Gaza rocket squads have reached the city and that would mark a significant escalation.
In Gaza, anger was high. Mourners changed “revenge is coming” as a few hundred Palestinians marched through Gaza’s streets Thursday afternoon in a funeral procession to mourn Mr. Jabari, whose coffin was draped with the green flag of Hamas.
But with Israeli airstrikes and shelling continuing, most Gaza residents remained indoors. An Israeli airstrike killed Mr. Jabari and his aide Wednesday, kicking off the current offensive.
Israel’s parliament was due to meet Thursday afternoon to approve the defense ministry’s request to summon additional army reserves as Israel showed no signs of slowing its assault. Israel has now struck more than 100 targets in the Gaza Strip, the military said. Military commanders had approved dozens of new targets in Gaza before dawn Thursday, said Israel’s top military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that the Israeli offensive would continue and could yet expand if Palestinian militants keep firing rockets at Israel.
“If necessary, the military is prepared to widen the operation,” he said in a televised address. “We won’t accept a situation in which Israeli civilians are threatened by the terror of rocket fire.”
On Thursday morning, leaflets fluttered from the skies over Gaza, warning residents to stay clear of Hamas ahead of continuing Israeli attacks. Army tanks joined the fray Thursday, firing shells at targets inside the coastal territory.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut short his visit to European capitals where he was lobbying for support for his plans to seek recognition for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations later this month.
Washington condemned Hamas’s recent attacks on southern Israel. “We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Morsi about the violence, “given Egypt’s central role in preserving regional security,” the White House said. Mr. Obama and Mr. Morsi “agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead.”
The current flare-up began Wednesday afternoon with an airstrike in the heart of Gaza City at around 4 p.m. that incinerated the Kia sedan carrying Mr. Jabari and his assistant, killing both men.
Israel’s military quickly released aerial video footage of what it said was the strike on Mr. Jabari, which showed a vehicle driving through a narrow street followed by a powerful explosion. The Israel Defense Forces confirmed the attack on Twitter. Hamas confirmed Mr. Jabari had been killed.
The parents of 11-month-old Palestinian baby Ahmed Masharawi, who was killed in an Israeli strike, held his body during his funeral in Gaza City Thursday.
As the top commander of Hamas’s armed wing, Mr. Jabari was arguably Gaza’s most powerful man and long one of Israel’s most hated foes. Israel accuses him of ordering dozens of terrorist attacks and overseeing the kidnapping and five-year captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He is the highest-ranking Hamas official assassinated by Israel since the 2004 assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Israeli airstrikes continued into the night. The IDF said its initial salvos targeted Gazan militants’ long-range rocket arsenals that can reach Tel Aviv’s southern suburbs. Later Wednesday evening, Israeli naval vessels joined the assault with artillery shells, the IDF said.
Israel’s army said it was prepared to order ground troops into Gaza if needed.
“This will not be wham, bam and we’re finished,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. “We are at the beginning of the incident, not at the end.”
Palestinian rocket-launch squads retaliated with a barrage of rockets shot toward southern Israeli cities. As of Thursday morning, the Israeli government was reporting that over 130 missiles had been fired at Israel since the operation began. Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome missile-defense system has intercepted more than two dozen of the incoming rockets, the military said.
Israel’s attack, which its army code named “Pillar of Defense,” came after several days of escalating back-and-forth hostilities in which Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets and mortars at southern Israel and struck an Israeli army jeep with an antitank rocket.
The flare-up in Gaza is an early test for how Egypt’s new Islamist-led government will navigate a conflict has long frustrated Arab governments. If it fails to throw its full support behind the Palestinians in Gaza, it risks losing domestic support. But by wading too deeply into the fray, it risks entangling itself in a seemingly endless conflict and jeopardizing a peace treaty that has been at the heart of Egypt’s national security and foreign policy for over three decades.
Mr. Morsi immediately recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv after the Israeli offensive began and the Muslim Brotherhood has called on the government to “review” the country’s three decades old peace accord with Israel.
The Wall Street Journal