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Israeli leaders plot response as Gaza violence persists

Friday, August 10, 2018

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JERUSALEM, Israel (AP) — Israel's prime minister convened his Security Cabinet late yesterday to plot a response to a new burst of violence with Gaza militants, ordering the army to take unspecified “strong action” as the military reinforced units along the border ahead of a possible escalation.

Fighting showed few signs of slowing. Late on Thursday, the Israeli military flattened a well-known cultural centre in a crowded Gaza City neighbourhood, claiming it was a Hamas military base, as militants fired rockets toward Israel throughout the evening.

In all, Israel carried out dozens of air strikes during the day, killing at least three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter, while Palestinian militants fired scores of rockets into Israel, wounding seven people.

The flare-up came as Egypt continued efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the two sides.

Israel's Channel 10 TV said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed the meeting of his Security Cabinet by two hours to allow the Egyptians to press forward with their work.

After a four-hour meeting, the Cabinet issued a short statement, saying it had directed the army “to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements”.

It did not elaborate. But shortly before the meeting, Netanyahu and his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, met with top military officials to discuss their options.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing closed consultations, said Netanyahu instructed the army to prepare for “every possibility”.

Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israel had “ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division”. He wouldn't comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the animosity, the enemies have signalled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war.

Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza's economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.

Thursday's fighting, however, brought back memories of the most recent war, in 2014. Air raid sirens wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, cancelling outdoor summer cultural events and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.

A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.

Shortly after, an Israeli air strike flattened the five-storey cultural centre in the Shati refugee camp, a crowded neighboufiverhood of Gaza City. The air strike set off a powerful explosion and sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air, causing crowds to scream in panic. Medical officials said at least seven bystanders were wounded.

The building is home to a popular theatre and exhibits plays and other shows on a daily basis. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.

“The deliberate targeting of a cultural centre with air strikes and destruction ... is a barbaric act,” said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was “an Israeli attempt to sabotage” the Egyptian ceasefire efforts.

The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. Hamas' Interior Ministry, including its secret police, has offices in an adjacent site, but those offices were not hit in the air strike.

The Israeli military said it struck some 200 targets throughout Gaza, including Hamas command posts and weapons production and storage facilities. It said a similar number of rockets and mortars were fired at Israel.

Gaza's Health Ministry identified those killed in the air strikes as 23-year-old Enas Khamash and her daughter Bayan, as well as a Hamas fighter, Ali Ghandour. The ministry said the militant and the civilians were killed in separate incidents.

Kamal Khamash, brother-in-law of the killed woman, said the family was asleep when the projectile hit the house. The mother and daughter died immediately and the father is in critical condition, Kamal said.

“This is a blatant crime and Israel is responsible for it,” he said.

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