sraeli jets struck the Gaza Strip, killing the leader of Hamas’s military wing and pushing the conflict to its harshest level since the military buildup that preceded Israel’s pre-New Year’s ground invasion of 2008.
The Israeli army called up reserves and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday an infantry assault is being considered as Palestinians fired rockets at the southern city of Beersheba to avenge the killing of Ahmed al-Jabari, the chief of Hamas militia operations in Gaza. At least seven other Palestinians were killed in Israeli air assaults, Gaza officials said.
“We delivered a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist groups,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address after a succession of air strikes on Gaza yesterday. Al-Jabari’s militia issued a statement saying that Israel had “opened the gates of hell” with his killing.
The escalation raises the risk of a wider conflict and poses an immediate test to Israel’s cold peace with Egypt. Egypt’s new President Mohamed Mursi, who rose from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood in an Arab Spring uprising, ordered the recall of the country’s ambassador to Israel and called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has intensified through the year with rising numbers of rockets fired across the Gaza border and retaliatory Israeli air raids. Hamas, an Islamist movement considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, has appealed for help from the new Muslim Brotherhood leaders of Egypt.
Elections looming in January may have underlined the decision by Netanyahu and Barak to strike now while assuring the tens of thousands of citizens in proximity to Gaza that they will be protected, said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheba.
Also at play is the decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood later this month at the United Nations General Assembly, he said.
“The security issue and the escalation in the south is central to the election campaign,” Meital said in a telephone interview.
The Israeli strikes followed the firing of more than 115 rockets from Gaza into Israel this week, adding to a total of about 14,000 missiles fired from the territory in the past 11 years, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry. Since the conclusion of Israel’s 2008 ground attack on Gaza, the government has said that it holds Hamas responsible for the rocket attacks because it runs the coastal territory.
The U.S. supports Israel’s right of self-defense and encourages Israel to “continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
In a telephone call yesterday with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu expressed “deep appreciation” for U.S. support, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. Netanyahu also spoke with Vice President Joe Biden, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and plans to talk with other world leaders, according to the statement.
Crude oil advanced in New York on concern that supplies from the Middle East will be disrupted. Crude oil for December delivery gained 94 cents, or 1.1 percent, to settle at $86.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Israel’s TA-25 index dropped 0.9 percent at the close in Tel Aviv to its lowest level since Sept. 24. The yield on the 2022 benchmark government bond jumped six basis points to 3.98 percent, the highest since Nov. 4, and the shekel weakened 0.6 percent, trading at 3.9471 shekels per dollar at 4:46 p.m. in Tel Aviv.
While Hamas wasn’t seeking an escalation at this time, it hadn’t acted strongly to stop militant groups outside its authority from firing rockets, Mukhemer Abu Sada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said by telephone. “Hamas is under public pressure from other Palestinian groups who say they gave up on resistance, and they didn’t want this negative message to spread.”
The Arab League will meet at the foreign ministers level on Nov. 17 to discuss the Israeli strike on Gaza, Saudi Press Agency said, citing the league’s deputy secretary-general Ahmed Bin Hilli.
Israel followed the initial attack on Jabari with multiple air and naval strikes. Columns of smoke could be seen rising about Gaza, according to eyewitnesses.
‘Stop the Massacres’
Eight Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attacks and 50 wounded, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Four of the dead were Hamas militants and four were civilians, including a child, during 25 Israeli raids, he said.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party condemned the attack, calling it “a crime that requires a quick Arab and international reaction to stop the massacres.”
While Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood will be under public pressure to take action, he needs to maintain international aid and support for his country’s shaky economy.
“This operation is a huge test for Mursi and the Brotherhood in general,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiators and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“One of their key platform issues was that we are going to restore Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world,” Elgindy said. “Front and center in that is the Palestinian cause.”
Egyptians across the political spectrum support the Palestinian cause and are “hostile to Israel,” Elgindy said, creating public pressure for a reaction even as Mursi will be constrained by Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. and by the Camp David Accords that established the cold peace with Israel.
The Islamic Hamas movement seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007, ending a partnership government a year after winning parliamentary elections. The group refuses to recognize Israel or any prior deals signed with it. It is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
An eyewitness, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said Jabari’s body was pulled from the wreckage of a car hit by a missile and identified by a Palestinian policeman who examined his identity card.
“We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the IDF said in a statement on the Twitter Inc. social media site.
Netanyahu convened senior ministers for a security briefing at army headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“Israel has upset the status quo, and the militants will strongly retaliate,” Hamas official Ismail Radwan told reporters.
The Israeli Air Force targeted at least 20 underground depots in Gaza housing Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that can reach Tel Aviv, Israeli Army spokesman Avital Leibovich said in an interview in Jerusalem. “Hamas is backed by Iran, a large amount of their ammunition is provided or funded by Iran,” Leibovich said.
The army issued emergency procedures for Israeli communities within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza, canceling school lessons for tomorrow and advising residents to stay close to air-raid shelters.
During the last Israeli ground attack on Gaza, the three- week Operation Cast Lead that started in 2008, more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed. The army is calling today’s action Operation Pillar of Defense.
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