Israel-Gaza air assaults continue amid U.S. efforts for truce
The death toll from Israel’s aerial offensive over the Gaza Strip climbed past 100 on Friday, as a U.S. effort to forge a truce failed to halt the rockets aimed at Israeli cities and the airstrikes targeting Palestinian militants.
In four days of furious bombardment, the Israeli military has struck about 1,100 targets in densely populated Gaza in an attempt to stop attacks by militant groups such as Hamas. During the same period, 600 rockets have been fired at Israel from the Mediterranean territory; dozens have been knocked out by Israel’s missile-defense shield, but 400 landed, causing mostly light injuries, the Israeli military said.
Among the dead Friday in Gaza were four members of one family, including a 7-year-old girl, who Palestinian medical sources said were killed in an airstrike that destroyed their house in Rafah, not far from the Egyptian border. The Israeli military acknowledged that almost a third of those killed during its offensive have been civilians; Gaza health officials say innocent bystanders account for a majority of the dead.
At least one rocket hit Israel from the north, across the border with Lebanon, where Israel has fought two wars. Israeli forces returned fire. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the work of a rogue militant or an anti-Israeli group such as Hezbollah seeking to widen the conflict.
“We expected some activity from Lebanon,” Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said. “Now we have to see if it’s symbolic or something more substantial.”
The deteriorating situation prompted President Obama, in a phone conversation Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to offer to step in and facilitate a cease-fire in hope of averting further escalation, including a potential Israeli land incursion into Gaza.
But the offer has had no takers, at least publicly. Netanyahu said Friday that external pressure would not deter his government from pressing its offensive in Gaza while Hamas continued its attacks.
“No international pressure will prevent us from operating with full force against a terrorist organization that calls for our destruction,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to strongly hit all those who try to attack us, and we will continue to take determined and prudent action to protect our home front.”
He had barely finished speaking at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv when sirens wailed to warn of a volley of rockets approaching the city, at least one of which was intercepted by Israel’s missile-defense system, Iron Dome.
Netanyahu would not disclose whether he had ordered a ground offensive, saying only that all options remained on the table. About 33,000 Israeli reservists out of an authorized total of 40,000 have been called up for service, and two more brigades are expected to join the three deployed near Gaza, Lerner said.
A senior Hamas leader vowed that the rocket assault on Israel would continue. In a statement issued from hiding in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh said that “Hamas leaders do not fear Israel’s threats.
“To the occupation, I say stop your war crimes against our people,” he said.
Hamas is believed to have built up a stockpile of thousands of rockets during the last year and a half of relative calm between Israel and Gaza. The arsenal has boosted the group’s capability, with a few hundred rockets that have a much longer range than previous weapons. At least one rocket fell only slightly short of the coastal city of Haifa, about 90 miles from Gaza.
Israel accuses Iran and Syria of supplying many of the weapons. In March, the Israeli navy captured a ship in the Red Sea laden with rockets that authorities suspect were bound for Gaza.
The outbreak of fighting was partly triggered by the abduction and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. The Israeli government blamed Hamas and swept through Palestinian neighborhoods rounding up suspected militants. Last week, a Palestinian youth was brutally slain by suspected Jewish extremists in an apparent revenge killing.
International organizations have expressed alarm over the rising number of deaths in Gaza. No Israelis have been killed in the fighting, though the first serious civilian injury in Israel was recorded Friday when a man was hurt in the port city of Ashdod after a rocket struck a tanker near a gas station, causing a massive explosion and sending up flames and thick black smoke.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, acknowledged that “the more civilians who are killed, the greater the failure” on the part of Israel’s security forces. But he blamed Hamas for using civilians as human shields, for “placing missile batteries next to schools, next to hospitals [and] mosques” and for launching rockets at major population centers such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“We don’t deliberately target the innocent,” Dermer said in a conference call with journalists.
The World Health Organization said that healthcare in Gaza was under severe strain as a result of the Israeli aerial assault, constant power outages and the territory’s economic isolation. Medical officials say more than 600 people have been injured in the air campaign.
“We are concerned about a possible collapse of health services,” Ala Alwan, the WHO’s director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in a statement.
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told Israel’s Army Radio that Washington stood ready to try to broker a return to the cease-fire that ended the last major confrontation between Israel and militants in Gaza, in November 2012.
Shapiro said the U.S. had already spoken with the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, some of whom sounded willing to join the diplomatic effort to end the fighting. Cairo was instrumental in bringing about the 2012 cease-fire, but its influence over Hamas has waned since the ouster last year of a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the installation of one hostile to Hamas.
Dermer said Netanyahu had received strong support for Israel’s right to self-defense in conversations with Western leaders, including Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He said the solidarity put Israel in a position of greater strength and could help reduce the hostilities.
“The stronger that support … the easier it will be actually to de-escalate the situation,” Dermer said.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Chu from London. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.
Follow Henry Chu on Twitter for international news: #HenryHChu
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