Israel has mobilized 20,000 soldiers for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, as militants there extended their rocket barrage and the Palestinian death toll climbed to at least 75.
“Where is this leading, is it leading to a ground force incursion? I can’t confirm that,” Israel army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said today in a phone briefing. “I can confirm we are making all the necessary preparations to be ready for that.”
The Israeli government has authorized the call-up of as many as 40,000 troops as it seeks to stop the rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian coastal enclave. Israel launched strikes against 108 targets today, while militants fired at least eight rockets. About two-third of those killed in Gaza were civilians, including children, medical services chief Ashraf al-Qedra said by phone.
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The worst fighting since November 2012 follows the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks in April and the killings of Israel and Palestinian teenagers, which further dimmed any chance of renewing negotiations soon.
The U.S. Embassy said that it will close its Tel Aviv office today, citing the security situation. Several rockets have been intercepted over the city, including at least two today, the army said.
Rocket fire from Gaza also came close to Dimona, the southern desert town where Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons facility is located. The army said one rocket was intercepted and two landed on Dimona’s outskirts. Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, claimed responsibility.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday the military would step up its assault on Hamas, which his government holds responsible for all rocket fire from Gaza.
“No country in the world would agree to suffer relentless missile attacks and infiltration attempts,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement. “We will continue to protect our civilians against Hamas attacks.”
The Interior Ministry in Gaza said 60 houses were struck by Israel attacks. Witnesses said some of those who were killed had ignored telephoned Israeli warnings to flee before militants’ houses were attacked.
Gaza streets were largely empty of traffic and people in the enclave of 1.8 million ventured out sparingly. In Gaza City, dozens of old men, children and women stood in long lines outside bakeries to stock up on bread ahead of a possible Israeli incursion.
“We are afraid that if the situation gets worse and all bakeries and grocery stores close down, we will find ourselves in a big crisis,” said 30-year-old Gaza resident Yazan Rajab. “People will die of starvation because the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Karm Abu Salem crossing with Israel are closed, and we don’t know if they will be reopened.”
Given the violence in Gaza and the failure of peace talks, Palestinian leaders are considering resuming efforts to gain international recognition of the Palestinian state in organizations such as the United Nations, said Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief representative of the PLO to the U.S.
“In the absence of a political process and the presence of all this Israeli aggression and arrogance of power, the Palestinian leadership will explore whatever can be used to provide protection for the Palestinian people,” Areikat told reporters in Washington.
Areikat said the top Palestinian priority right now is “to stop this Israeli assault and stop the rising death toll of innocent Palestinian civilians.” Palestinian leaders expect the U.S. to take a “more decisive approach” to ending the violence, he said.
Palestinian rocket targets in Israel have expanded to include Dimona, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and as far north as Zichron Yaacov, 88 miles (141 kilometers) from Gaza. No fatalities or serious injuries have been reported since the rocket fire began.
It wasn’t the first time Palestinian militants targeted Dimona: In 2008, two suicide bombers carried out an attack near the nuclear facility. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports it has a nuclear weapons program.
Israel has struck over 600 targets in Gaza in the past three days, including tunnels militants dug under the border with Israel, their homes, rocket launchers, command centers and training camps, the military said.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called on the world to pressure Israel to halt its “aggression.” The Palestinians “know the path to resistance and uprising,” he said in a speech televised by Al-Jazeera and other channels, an allusion to their two uprisings against Israel since 1987.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at a meeting of Palestinian leaders, denounced the Israeli “bloodshed” in Gaza. “What’s happening in Palestine now is a war on our people,” he said in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas said he had appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for help in arranging a truce.
The Palestinian leader said he also spoke to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Egypt traditionally has played a role in mediating an end to conflicts between Israel and Gaza militants, and its Foreign Ministry has said it’s been in contact with concerned parties.
Israel signaled that it has set out a wider objective for this campaign than a truce of the sort that ended Israel’s 2009 and 2012 operations in Gaza. More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in Israel’s last ground incursion into the territory.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the failed peace talks, plans to speak to Abbas within the next 24 hours, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
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